DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard

Part Thirty One

As Karen returned from the bar with two large glasses of whisky, Yvonne felt a sudden sense of Deja Vu. But for the pub itself and the clothes she was wearing, this could have been that occasion almost a year ago when Karen had taken her for a drink after visiting ritchie.

"Do you get the feeling we've been here before?" She said to Karen, as a way of breaking the ice.

"Yes," Replied Karen, remembering the brief thoughts she'd had about Yvonne on that day. Karen lit them both a cigarette, in another unconscious gesture of repetition from that day that might have been their beginning. Yvonne took an enormous slug of her drink, as if to give her courage.

"I didn't expect to feel like this," Yvonne began.

"To feel like what?" Asked Karen, knowing the answer but also knowing that Yvonne needed to say it, to make it real. Yvonne gave her an exasperated look. "Tell me," Said Karen gently. "Being honest with each other is the only way we can deal with this."

"You make me feel things I've never even felt with a bloke. It's like you can see everything there is, that I don't have to hide anything from you, and that's scary."


"Because when you're that open with someone, you give them endless opportunities to hurt you." Karen wondered at the significance of Yvonne's slipping unknowingly in to the second person, and knew it was her way of avoiding talking about herself.

"What happened yesterday was what did it for you, wasn't it?" Asked Karen.

"Yeah. I felt like you were looking right in to my soul, and it didn't bother me. I didn't care that you could see everything there is to see. If it makes any sense, I felt complete."

"I know," Said Karen, "That's how it felt for me too."

"Was yesterday the first time you felt it?" Asked Yvonne. Karen's gaze turned slightly sheepish.

"No," She said, "Not quite."

"Do tell?" Prompted Yvonne, definitely intrigued despite her better judgment. Remembering the face she'd seen in her bath the other night, Karen couldn't help but blush. Yvonne laughed.

"This I have to hear," She said, thoroughly enjoying Karen's discomfort.

"No way," Said Karen, "You'd have to know me a lot better than this to hear something like that."

"I'll keep it in mind," Replied Yvonne, finding their flirting far more comfortable than straightforward analysis.

"You remember when we went to the pub after visiting Ritchie last year? It just struck me at the time how attractive you are." At Yvonne's look of disbelief, Karen held up a hand to forestall any interruption. "You made me laugh," She continued, "It'd been far too long since anyone had made me laugh." Yvonne didn't know what to say. "This wasn't supposed to happen," Went on Karen. "I thought they were just feelings I had to hide and one day get over."


"Because you're too good a friend for me to want to jeopardise that. You don't know it, but having someone to do normal things with like have dinner and drink too much has been the one thing to keep me from going under this last year. Until now, you've been the least likely person I know to even contemplate anything with a woman, and no way was I going to threaten our friendship by frightening you off."

"So why now?" Asked Yvonne gently.

"I wouldn't have said a word if I hadn't thought you felt something similar."

"How is it," Said Yvonne, "that one look can be the most erotic thing I've felt in years?" Karen laughed, again remembering her bathtime activity of Wednesday night.

"I'm serious," Said Yvonne, but also smiling. "I think that's what threw me. It was like every nerve I have was on fire. But that in itself was wrong. Like you said, I'm as straight as you get. Or at least I'm supposed to be. Getting turned on just by looking at another woman just isn't me, it's not who I am." Yvonne gestured at the barmaid for a refill and then continued. "Have you ever felt like this before, about anyone else?" Karen took a long drag of her cigarette before answering.

"Once or twice," She conceded.

"Ever do anything about it?"

"No. It was never the right time. Why are you so scared of considering something new?" Yvonne handed a fiver to the blonde who brought their drinks over.

"Men," She said, "In spite of all their egocentric levels of cruelty, irritation and patheticness combined, are ultimately safe because I at least know how not to get hurt by them, even if I don't always put that part in to practice."

"And with women you don't?" Asked Karen.

"I'm not even sure it goes that far," Replied Yvonne. "I have no idea if I could find other women sexually atrractive. I spent most of last night thinking about this. At first I wondered if it was sexual frustration. But it isn't. What I feel seems to come as a package. There isn't much you don't know about me," her thoughts strayed to Renee Williams and the nut-filled salt cellar. "But that hasn't stopped us from gradually getting closer, especially since I got out. You don't know how much it means that you've not let any of that get in the way."

"That's maybe because I don't have any reason to feel threatened by you," Replied Karen softly. "I think, with you, I could learn to trust again."

"Don't you see," Said Yvonne in total anguish. "That's exactly why this just shouldn't happen. I'm not someone you should put that kind of trust in, because I can't sit here and tell you that everything will be okay. I have no idea how I might feel about all this in two days, two weeks, two months. I can't promise you that I won't run from feelings that are scaring me even more than Charlie's threats used too." Then, on realising that she'd unwittingly strayed in to the hitherto unmentioned and definitely unchartered territory of her marriage, she strove to change the focus of the conversation. But Karen hadn't missed this little insight in to a part of Yvonne's life she clearly didn't know much about.

"But what I do know," Said Karen, "Is that you would never intentionally hurt me, and I've never been sure of that with anyone before."

"You don't deserve to be hurt again if I realise I can only go so far with this."

"Neither do you."

"Let's face it," Said Yvonne, getting more miserable by the second, "I'm the one most likely to get cold feet."

"And why do you think I've only ever looked from the sidelines on the one or two occasions I've felt anything vaguely like this?" Asked Karen. Yvonne didn't answer, and karen could see the slight glisten of tears in her eyes. She put out a tentative hand and gently entwined her fingers with Yvonne's. "This is totally new to both of us. We're both taking an enormous risk, and we might make a complete shambles of it. But I think it's a risk worth taking."

"I know," Said Yvonne, the tears beginning to slide unheeded down her face. "I just don't want to give you another reason to avoid all human contact like you have done since Ritchie and Fenner." These words hit Karen like a gunshot. Yvonne was really afraid of hurting her as badly as two of the most evil men she'd ever known had done in the past. Karen moved round the table and sat on the plush-covered bench seat next to Yvonne. As Karen turned Yvonne to face her and gently put her arms round her, Yvonne simply said,

"I'm sorry."

"Just listen to me," Karen said, her cheek pressed to Yvonne's, her own tears threatening to spill. "You will never break me anything like either Ritchie or Fenner did, not ever. Do you really think I'd be sitting here, talking like this if I thought you would? Don't let me ever hear you put yourself in to the same category as either Ritchie or Fenner again." They sat for a while, simply holding each other. Yvonne didn't think she'd ever felt so safe, so cherrished as she did in Karen's arms. It felt almost like coming home, like she'd been destined for all of her life to one day arrive here. Her tears had dried by the time she next spoke.

"We'll have to take this one step at a time," She said, her lips not far from Karen's ear. Karen leaned back slightly to look at her.

"At least we'll both be novices for a change," She said with a smile. Yvonne laughed.

"Yeah, first time for everything." As they made their way out a short while later, the barmaid gazed whistfully after them. She'd seen many couples come and go from her little watering hole, but these two were by far the most interesting she'd ever seen.

Part Thirty Two

The muttered cursing and swearing wafted upwards like the sulphurous gasses from a grumbling volcano in John Deed's chambers. The workman was crouching down in the corner of the room, his ratchet screwdriver trying to pull the ancient screws through the twisted bottom hinge out of John Deed's front door.

"Cup of tea?" John Deed nervously flitted about feeling like a spare part while the two workmen strained at the reported 'little repair job' due to a 'freak gust of wind that accidentally blew the door back' as was euphemistically described to them.

The other workman scraped out the dust from the hole where the impact of George's entry had driven the door handle into the wall.

"Funny things, gusts of winds, mate." He said. "You look at those fragile leaded light small windows in the landing which haven't got a scratch on them yet this door couldn't be more damaged if Arnold Schwartzenegger had charged at it himself."

"He's Governor of California now," as John Deed's grasp of facts still functioned despite his nervousness in getting the job done before it attracted further comment.

"It's no good, mate." The workman flung down his screwdriver, his wrist giving him agony. "It'll have to get done the quick, noisy way. And you can try and slap a conservation order on me to preserve this door if you like but we're in charge here." And he plugged in a drill to weaken the grip of the screws on the doorframe. They must have been fitted by some ancient eighteenth century craftsman with muscles of iron who had the clear intention that it should withstand the onslaught of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Regrettably, he had reckoned without a fairly slim built modern female barrister with a burning grudge on her mind.

A sharp edged drilling sound grated its way through the hushed respectful quiet of the chambers which made John Deed visibly wince. It was a sunny Saturday morning when he and his fellow judges were accustomed from time immemorial to catch up on their work. Not even Hitler's bombing raids a half century before had dared to drop as much as a firecracker in the vicinity of the judges chambers. The workman engaged in a life or death battle for control was committing the most appalling act of aural blasphemy with that diabolical machinery. To the workman, he was cutting a succession of holes angled in to the base of the screws to break their limpet like grip on the wood and was oblivious of the anxious crowd of spectators . In the meantime, his mate was smoothing out the plasterwork to cover the hole in the wall.

"Deed," Michael Niven once again appeared in the doorway."Some of us are trying to work, you know."

"If all of us can just calm down, calm down." John Deed urged, his very body language, agitated arm movements and heated tones conveyed the total and absolute opposite."Then this will be only a temporary disturbance."

Michael Niven shook his head in bewilderment. He had long had the dubious self-imposed burden of acting as go between for John Deed smoothing out rough edges of antagonisms but this was different. It was not unknown for there to be the occasional sounds of a rather plastered barrister roaming the corridors of learned judgement but, of course, Deed has to go one better than anyone else and has to set standards of whimsical eccentricity that no one in their right minds would dare to even emulate let alone surpass.

"Perhaps a little more application of sideways strength to the screwdriver would help", a rather naïve junior barrister spoke helpfully from behind Niven as others from neighbouring chambers gathered wondering what in hell was disturbing the peace. The workman snorted in contempt at this pathetic amateur.

"Ah there, Deed. Is this some kind of exhibitionist prank that you are playing," the would be hectoring tones of Sir Ian singally failed to act the headmaster.

"Yes, Ian. I was so bored out of my mind after your last endless stream of homilies were inflicted upon me that I thought that the best way to express my depth of my feelings on the subject was to smash my own front door down. And you would be well advised to think that if I have muscles of steel to inflict this sort of damage on the door, heaven help you if your idiotic ramblings cause me to lose my temper once and for all with both of you."

Sir Ian visibly flinched at the concentrated fury and sarcasm of John Deed's pent up exasperation, partly fuelled by an emotion rare to him, embarrassment.

"Yes, well, Deed. That is not what I really came to talk to you about. Your idiosyncratic behaviour is something I have come to expect from you and I would be slightly disappointed if on occasion it were not present." Sir Ian responded, trying to salvage his easily dented sense of dignity by patronising him instead. John Deed smiled to himself inwardly for the first time that day. For once in his life, their disapproval at one of the more colourful chapters in his life was directed at the one incident which he was entirely innocent of creating, well as innocent as much as his admittedly provocative attitude to George throughout the course of the trial.

In Sir Ian's world, the word 'idiosyncratic' expressed a point of view that put the object of the word beyond the pale and stigmatised him. In John Deed's world, the word rather suited his own self image and was a badge to be worn with pride, to be positively flaunted, that's another word that he liked and summed himself up.

"A rumour has been going round the Lord Chancellor's Department that you have added to your scandalous reputation by sending a distinguished barrister down to a common prisoner's cell for contempt of court. Just what signals are you giving out to the general public, not to mention the common people in the gallery."

"I agree, Sir Ian. The dignity of the judiciary of the country should not be dragged down to the level of a trashy television situation comedy show. Especially by a circuit judge who has a daughter who has ambitions to become a lawyer."Lawrence James's harsh tone echoed His Master's Voice.

He must have heard it from Neil Houghton who in turn heard it from George, John Deed concluded. I never thought Ian and his abominable sidekick would have their positive uses but they have one. Perhaps, I really need the Lawrence Jameses of the world to kick against. If they weren't around, would I still have this exhibitionist fix? The last thing he was worrying about was Charlie phoning him up to express her displeasure, when she had temporarily dragged herself from her active social life.

"I have an acute distaste for the language of management consultants as well you know, Ian," John Deed replied in languid tones," but not even barristers or, dare I say it, officials of the Lord Chancellor's Department, are above the law. If the general public has this perception of us, then so much the better. Don't you agree, Mr. James." John Deed smiled meaningfully at Lawrence James.

In turn, a living nightmare relived itself before Lawrence James's eyes of the utter humiliation when he, an authority on high of the Lord Chancellor's Department, was led down to a squalid cell by two common underlings who slammed the cell door on him. Still more nightmarish were the anguished tones of abject humility that had been forced out of him when his first two stiff necked versions weren't good enough for Deed.

"I couldn't possibly express an opinion on the matter." Lawrence James sheepishly and untypically replied, looking down at his expensively shined shoes.

"Coy really doesn't suit you, Mr. James." John deed smiled wickedly.

"Look out, Gov." the workman yelled.

A creaking sound of rending wood announced that the door was toppling over sideways into the corridor. Sir Ian had to do a ballerina like pirouette to avoid the heavy oak door from landing on him. Trust the man to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Did you sent one of those pompous barristers down to the slammer?" came the approving voice of the workmen from behind them. "I take it all back, sir. I would be very much obliged if I could have your autograph."

"Certainly." John Deed replied civilly and Sir Ian and Lawrence James saw with hatred that this insufferable man was acting like a pop star as he reached for a pen and notepad and signed it with a flourish. Did the man have no shame or dignity?

"John Deed, is it? And what really happened to cause this damage? You can tell us." The man smiled knowingly at John Deed. This was as good an incident as when he'd seen the replay on television of John Prescott landing one on that guy who threw an egg at him.

"I had an argument with my ex wife, the barrister who I had jailed for contempt of court."

The man grinned at that one while Sir Ian and Lawrence James glared daggers at his shameless lack of discretion, seeing in front of their eyes tomorrow's tabloid headlines. How else can the reputation of this countries hallowed institutions be preserved with dangerous madmen like that Deed fellow around?

"Mr. James, you are, as yet, a married man. I would urge a word or two of caution on you never to have a fall out with your wife or the same could happen to you one day. Likewise, Ian, Lady Rochester might well turn up unexpectedly on your front doorstep one night. George is, as you are aware, slightly built and look at what she's done. Never underestimate the strength and force of a woman who feels slighted or aggrieved. You never know what hurricane force you may unleash."

"We have other business to attend to, Deed." And Sir Ian pushed Lawrence James and they scurried down the corridor and back to the normality of their office at the Lord Chancellor's Department.

John Deed was beginning to feel that this latest escapade pleasingly enhanced his scandalous reputation and one that he would later laugh about over a drink. He resolved that he must phone Charlie about it later on.

"Can my mate have an autograph, too? We'll run this door to the workshop today and have it back in no time. And we'll keep what you said under our hats." The man winked at John Deed as a man of the world who smiled back with equal understanding." You don't mind working in the open for a bit, do you?"

"I have been used to working in the open all my life." John Deed very truthfully replied.

Part Thirty Three

On the Saturday morning, Lauren crept quietly up the stairs carrying a breakfast tray, with Trigger at her side carrying the morning's newspaper in his mouth. As she pushed open the bedroom door, Yvonne turned over and opened her eyes.

"This is a nice surprise," Said Yvonne, sitting up. Trigger put his front paws up on the bed and dropped the newspaper in Yvonne's lap. "Did you teach him to do that?" She asked, scratching the dog's ears.

"Of course," Said Lauren with a smirk, "He does everything I tell him, don't you boy." At the sound of her voice, Trigger abandoned Yvonne in favour of the wonderful aroma coming from the breakfast tray. As Lauren put the tray down on the bed, which contained croissants straight from the oven, Yvonne's favourite strawberry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice and black, fresh Brazilian coffee, Yvonne said,

"So to what do I owe the pleasure?" Lauren stared at her in utter astonishment. She picked up the digital clock from Yvonne's bedside table which displayed the date as well as the time.

"Mum!" She said in total exasperation. "Don't you know what day it is?" She said thrusting the clock under Yvonne's nose.

"Oh, that," Said Yvonne dismissively. "I was trying to avoid thinking about that."

"It's your first birthday since you got out, therefore we have to do something special."

"Lauren, being forty-eight isn't anything special, believe me."

"So what do you intend to do?" At Yvonne's silence, Lauren reached forward and picked up the address book from the bedside table. "If you're so intent on not even recognising your birthday, then we'll just have to do it for you," She said, flicking through the pages.

"Who's we?" Asked Yvonne, beginning to be slightly worried.

"Only me, Cassie, Roisin and Karen. Got a problem with that?" Hiding her brief flutter of adolescent nerves at the thought of seeing Karen again so soon after their talk yesterday, Yvonne replied,

"Yeah, okay, but nothing major."

Karen was relaxing over a cigarette and the morning paper when the phone rang.

"Karen, it's Lauren, are you doing anything this evening?" Karen briefly smiled at the irony. When did she ever do anything in the evening these days, unless it was with Yvonne.

"No, I've nothing planned," She replied.

"Mum has totally neglected to tell anyone it's her birthday today, and she seems set on ignoring it altogether." Karen grinned, this was typical of Yvonne.

"And are you planning to surprise her?" She asked. Lauren laughed.

"Surprise mum? Are you joking? That'd be impossible. She doesn't want to do anything major, so I thought I'd ask you, Cassie and Roisin over for a barbecue and take it from there."

"Sounds good. What time were you thinking?"

"About seven, and can you bring some wine?"

"Sure, and tell her I said that age is nothing to be afraid of." As Lauren put the phone down and relayed Karen's message, Yvonne sincerely hoped this was true.

Karen started thinking. Just what could she get Yvonne for a birthday present. this, after all, was the woman who had just about everything. Then she remembered how pleased Yvonne had been to have an uninterrupted, lengthy phone call from Denny on Wednesday. What also seemed to connect, was the thought that as she now knew about Grayling's little misleading of her last year, she figured he owed her a favour. Picking up the phone, Karen grinned wickedly to herself, knowing that this time, it was she who held all the cards.

"Neil, it's Karen Betts," She said on hearing his voice.

"Karen," He said, sounding almost jovial. "What can I do for you?"

"I'd like to arrange a home visit for Denny Blood to visit Yvonne Atkins, tomorrow." There was a short but charged silence.

"First," Said Neil, his voice steadily rising. "Why such short notice, and second, exactly what has Daniella Blood done recently to deserve such a privilege?"

"To answer your first question," Said Karen evenly, "I wasn't aware until a few minutes ago that it's Yvonne's birthday today and considering that we're in the middle of the trial of the woman who killed Sharon Wiley, I think it might be the thing to calm Denny down. She's been at boiling point all week so I'm told, and I think this might be the answer."

"Karen, can you give me one very good reason why I should even consider this?"

"Perhaps because you owe me the biggest favour I think you've ever owed anyone," Said Karen quietly.

"Pardon?" Said Neil warily.

"Does the name Michael Hendry mean anything to you?" At his silence she continued. "You know, the man from the CPS who supposedly told you they weren't going to take up my case against Fenner? Only, you forgot to tell me he didn't actually exist, didn't you."

"Who told you this?" Asked Neil furiously.

"I'd have thought that little detail was irrelevant. You managed to swindle me and god knows how many others out of justice, all because you wanted something to hold over Fenner. I think arranging a home visit for Denny Blood is a small price to pay, don't you?"

"Why're you getting so close to Yvonne Atkins?" Good point, thought Karen, cursing herself for not having thought up a decent response for this.

"That's absolutely none of your business," She said without missing a beat. Neil laughed, sounding the happiest she'd ever heard him.

"Don't tell me you've switched sides?" He asked.

"Don't tell me you'd dare to disapprove?" Threw back Karen, thanking god he couldn't see her blushing.

"Just be careful, Karen," He said, sounding about as genuine as on the day he'd expressed so much concern over what had happened with Fenner.

"Neil, you didn't try to warn me off the last Atkins, so don't bother with this one. My private life is my own business, do I make myself clear?" Grayling had to admit that she had a point. He would have hated everyone knowing the utter fiasco that had been him, Di and Tony.

"Point taken," He replied.

"So, do we have a deal?" Asked Karen, "Over Denny Blood's home visit?"

"Yes, I'll put it in writing ASAP and fax you the details." When Karen put down the phone, she knew that however much of a wanker Neil had been to her in the past, his agreeing to do this for her, was his way of apologizing.

When Karen arrived at around seven that evening, she couldn't wait to give Yvonne the surprise of Denny's visit tomorrow. Neil had grudgingly faxed her the confirmation some time in the afternoon. As she turned in to Yvonne's road, she saw Cassie and Roisin in the car ahead of her. She could see Cassie applying lipstick in the driving mirror whilst Roisin sat at the wheel. When they turned in to Yvonne's drive, and Cassie got out of the car, Karen was slightly thrown to see she was only wearing a soft, pale blue bikini which accentuated her tan, with a long tunic-style shirt slung carelessly over her shoulders. For someone, like her, who had been told to make it strictly casual, Cassie looked incredible. On glancing up and catching Karen openly staring, Cassie smirked.

"Oh, don't mind her," Said Roisin handing Cassie a tin that clearly contained a homemade birthday cake. "She just likes to flaunt it at every opportunity." Karen picked up the two large off licence bags and a bouquet of roses from the passenger seat and followed them towards the front door. When Yvonne came to open it, she said with a grin,

"I might have known that an excuse to get pissed would bring you three over."

"Well, quite how you thought you'd get away with not telling us it was your birthday, I don't know," Said Roisin in mock disgust. Yvonne just smiled sheepishly and led them back in to the house. Then, turning back to take in Cassie's appearance, she said,

"I hope you're not going to go anywhere else looking like that?"

"I don't know, oh old and wise one," Cassie said playfully. "It might be fun. Imagine all the women I'd hook in one night."

"Do you have to put up with this all the time?" Said Karen to Roisin with a wink.

"She only does it to wind me up," Said Roisin, secure in the knowledge that Cassie wouldn't stray as easily as she made out she would.

"Would you like me to relieve you of those?" Asked Lauren coming in to the hall, followed by Trigger who lifted his nose to the tin Cassie was holding.

"That's not for you," Said Cassie lifting it out of his reach.

"What've you got in there?" Asked Yvonne, clearly mystified by the tin's contents.

"Possibly the biggest advantage of Roisin still having young children," Replied Cassie, "Is that she's an angel when it comes to making birthday cakes." Yvonne grinned.

"Jesus," She said, "I haven't had one of those since I was a kid."

"Which is why," Said Roisin, removing her precious creation from Cassie's occasionally accident-prone fingers, "You're overdue for one." As Cassie and Roisin moved with Lauren towards the kitchen, Karen held out her red roses.

"Happy birthday," She said with a smile.

"Thank you," Said Yvonne, giving Karen a peck on the cheek. Holding the flowers in one hand, she opened the card. There was a picture of a woman holding up a glass of champagne, and inside, Karen had simply written,

"To whatever future I can give you."

"That's lovely," Said Yvonne, her eyes meeting Karen's for the first time since she'd arrived.

"The best bit's in the envelope," Replied Karen. Yvonne fumbled with the envelope and pulled out Grayling's fax. Unfolding it, she read:

This is to confirm that I, Neil Grayling, Governor of HMP Larkhall, give my permission for Daniella Blood to have a home visit with Yvonne Atkins for the duration of four hours on Sunday August 24th. This visit will be supervised by wing governor Karen Betts...

Yvonne didn't get any further.

"Are you serious?" Asked Yvonne in total wonderment. Karen smiled.

"I'm serious," She said, realising for the first time that Yvonne's happiness was something she wanted very very badly. Being careful so as not to crush the roses, Yvonne put her arms round Karen and squeezed her tight.

"That's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me," She said, a slight tremor in her voice.

"My pleasure," Said Karen softly, returning the hug and not wanting to let go.

Much later in the evening when they'd eaten their way through the wonderful food Lauren and Roisin had prepared, Lauren went away and returned carrying a very large, but very flat package.

"Happy birthday, Mum," She said putting the parcel in to Yvonne's arms. When it was unwrapped, it was revealed to be an enormous painting of Trigger, sprawled sound asleep under his favourite tree. Lauren had had it framed, and it was ready to hang wherever Yvonne wanted it.

"This is beautiful," Yvonne said in awe. "Who did it?"

"I was able to give an artist friend of mine a very nice commission," Said Lauren with a smile.

"When did you get it done? This looks like it would have taken some time."

"You remember when you went out to Spain in June? Well, those three weeks came in very useful. I don't think I've ever known a dog that was better at sitting for a painter than this one."

"You've been teaching that dog too many decadent habits while I've been inside," Said Yvonne with a laugh. Lauren gently retrieved the painting and bore it away in to the house, returning with a bottle of the finest Krug Karen thought she'd ever seen. Yvonne stared at it mesmerized.

"Where did you get that?" She asked slightly ominously.

"Where do you think I got it?" Asked Lauren preparing to peel off the silver foil covering the cork. "From Dad's stash. Just because you won't go near that cellar doesn't mean we shouldn't drink what's in it."

"We haven't had any of that since before I ended up in Larkhall," Said Yvonne, marveling at how Lauren could even bare to be near the one part of the house that still had Charlie stamped all over it.

"Which is precisely why we should open it now," Lauren said softly.

"Will it be cold enough?" Asked Cassie, the only other one there used to drinking champagne on a regular basis from her pre-Larkhall days.

"It's as cold as a morgue down there, even in this heat," Replied Lauren. She eased out the cork, and filled all their glasses. "To Mum," She said raising her glass, "And to many more birthdays she won't be allowed to forget."

"To Yvonne," Said the others raising their glasses. On taking her first sip, Karen realised why it was she'd never before really liked Champagne, she'd clearly only ever had the cheap stuff, never the real thing.

"God, this stuff brings back memories," Said Cassie fondly.

"Oh, what, of the first time you took me out for dinner?" Said Roisin with a smile. Then to the others she said, "I swear she'd picked the most outrageously expensive restaurant in the whole of London." Yvonne laughed.

"Typical Cassie," She said grinning.

"I was nervous," Said Cassie in mild protest.

"You, nervous?" Asked Karen in astonishment. "That I'd like to see."

"Oh, she was," Said Roisin putting an arm round Cassie's shoulders, "She actually ran out of things to say."

"Jesus," Said Yvonne in total disbelief. But Cassie wasn't listening. She'd spied an empty wine bottle that Yvonne had put on the floor out of the way. Reaching to pick it up, she began looking for its cork, and finding one amongst the clutter on the table, she rammed it back in to the bottle.

"Cassie, what're you doing?" Asked Lauren, but it was Yvonne who recognised the gleam of mischief in Cassie's eye. It wasn't unlike the gleam that had preceded the suggestion of fiddling the prison shop.

"Cassie, whatever it is, the answer's no," Said Yvonne, knowing of old what havoc that too clever brain could cause. Cassie simply grinned wickedly round at them all, and began spinning the bottle round between her two hands.

"Cass, no," Said Roisin in half delight half horror, the first one to twig.

"Actually," Said Karen, the next to work it out, "This could be fun." Lauren simply smiled, fairly sure what Cassie had in mind, and thinking this might be her opportunity to sample what she would otherwise never get her hands on.

"Oh, sod it," Said Yvonne, "What are birthdays for but to make a complete tit of yourself."

"Absolutely right," Said Cassie in triumph, as Karen and Roisin began to clear a space in the middle of the table.

"Let's just hope we've all drunk enough not to remember this in the morning," Said Yvonne, but knowing it was a very small hope.

Lauren refilled all their glasses, and Yvonne took a long swig, just knowing she was going to regret agreeing to Cassie's impromptu game of spin the bottle. Cassie laid the bottle down in front of Yvonne.

"Go on," She said, "Birthday girl's prerogative."

"No way," Said Yvonne, "Your idea, so you go first." Cassie didn't need telling twice. Stretching forward a well-manicured hand, she spun the bottle that had previously held red wine. Cassie was quite obviously adept at this game, because the bottle seemed to spin endlessly, glass slithering silently over the cotton tablecloth. When it eventually came to a stop, the cork that Cassie had rammed back in was pointing straight at Karen. Her eyes briefly flicked to Yvonne, as if to reassure her this wasn't for real. The soft, sultry sounds of Annie Lennox drifted out of the open French windows, and as Cassie leaned towards Karen, a predatory smirk of satisfaction moved over her face. Karen really had no idea what to expect. But when Cassie looked in to her eyes with that wicked flash of fun, together with a certain aura of reassurance, she knew she was going to enjoy it. They both found the other's lips soft and pliable, and as skilled at kissing as a professional clarinetist would be with their reeds. Yvonne had to admit that she found the scene disturbingly erotic. These two beautiful women whom she'd known for some time now in different ways, kissing each other like they were posing for a particularly classy erotic painting. not wanting to wind Yvonne up too much, Cassie hadn't allowed her tongue to come in to contact with Karen's, but she couldn't help briefly running her tongue along Karen's lower lip, almost as a way of saying, you'll never forget your first. Karen looked round the table at the others. Yvonne was gazing at her contemplatively, Lauren had a broad grin on her face, showing that she found the whole thing hilarious. But a brief shadow had crossed Roisin's face, and if she'd had hackles, they'd have risen in a stripe along her neck. Slightly wondering just how good an idea this had been, Karen spun the bottle. This time, it landed on Roisin. Karen stood up and moved round the table to where Roisin was sitting. As she planted a chased kiss on Roisin's slightly wary mouth, she murmured,

"You can put the claws away, you know." Roisin smiled sheepishly. She returned the kiss as one who knows their territory isn't under threat. When Roisin spun the bottle, it landed on Yvonne. With a feeling of curiosity, Roisin got up and moved round to Yvonne. Their first touch of lips was a point of exploration for both of them. For Yvonne, because this was the first woman she'd ever kissed, and for Roisin, because she was finally sampling something of the woman whom Cassie had openly fancied when they were inside. The only word Yvonne could put to it was different. It was certainly gentler than any man's kiss had ever been, but it definitely hadn't ignited any spark in her. Roisin gave Yvonne a brief smile of encouragement as she returned to her seat. Karen lit a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring up toward the setting sun. This evening was turning out to be far more enlightening than she'd first supposed. Yvonne was interested now, and when she spun the bottle, the cork pointed towards Cassie. With a grin of pure glee, Cassie watched Yvonne walk round behind Karen to get to her. Karen watched in some amusement as Yvonne joined her lips to Cassie's. Under the gaze of Karen, Roisin and a silently laughing Lauren, Yvonne was treated to a similarly expert initiation process as Karen had been. When they eventually came up for air, Yvonne said,

"I won't ask how old you were when you learnt to do that, because it was clearly a long time ago." Roisin laughed with more mirth than she'd felt since the beginning of the game.

"Oh, Cassie's always been precocious in that department," She said, taking a swig from her glass. When Cassie next twirled the bottle, it landed on Lauren.

"This I don't need to see," Said Yvonne as Cassie moved round the table towards Lauren. As Cassie put a hand on Lauren's shoulder, Yvonne picked up a pile of plates and walked towards the house. Thinking that this was as good a time as any to sample Yvonne's gloriously sensual mouth for herself, Karen picked up a couple of empty wine bottles and followed her. Looking back, however, she was enchanted to see Cassie and Lauren kissing like there was no tomorrow, and Roisin of all things, gazing at them totally transfixed. Not quite able to believe the direction her thoughts were leading her concerning those three, and putting it firmly down to too much wine, she walked through the French windows, over the thick lounge carpet towards the kitchen. Yvonne was stacking the plates in the dishwasher and turned to face her.

"I thought it was my turn for whatever you did to Cassie that made her look as if all her birthdays had come at once."

"Oh, did you now?" Asked Yvonne, grinning wickedly when she saw the lust in Karen's eyes. Moving towards her, Karen put the two empty bottles down on the kitchen table.

"You looked sensational with Cassie," Said Karen in a low husky voice, now standing directly in front of Yvonne.

"So says the woman who looked like she could kiss for England," Replied Yvonne locking eyes with Karen. At the first touch of lips, something deep in both of them reached out to forge that irrevocably strong bond of completion. It really was like coming home, like finding the one you'd been destined to be with all your life. Gentle caresses from soft lips soon became lingering explorations, learning the contours of each other's mouths. The small sound Karen made in the back of her throat was the sexiest thing Yvonne had ever heard. As their arms came up and went round each other, Karen felt like this was where she always wanted to be.

"You're amazing," Said Yvonne between kisses.

"So are you," said Karen nibbling lightly on Yvonne's lower lip and then soothing it with her tongue.

"Before you two get totally out of control," Came a mocking voice from the doorway, "We're off clubbing." They turned to see Cassie gazing at them with a soft smile on her face.

"I'm glad to see you're actually wearing something to go clubbing," Said Yvonne, trying to cover up her embarrassment. Cassie looked gorgeous, in a miniscule black skirt and a truly outrageous top that looked to be made of nothing more than tiny purple beads.

"I've persuaded Lauren to stay at ours tonight, so you'll have some peace and quiet."

"Ever subtle weren't you Cassie," Said Yvonne totally unable to keep the smile off her face.

A while later, they lay close together, side by side along the couch in Yvonne's lounge at the other end of the house. Elton John was playing softly on the stereo and they were working their way down another bottle of wine.

"I haven't drunk this much in ages," Said Karen softly.

"No, me neither," replied Yvonne, lighting a cigarette. She was lying in the crook of Karen's right arm, so held the cigarette up for her to take a drag. Neither of them had shared a cigarette with anyone since they were fifteen and sneaking out of school for one, but lying so close, it seemed silly to light two. The words of Nikita gently drifted across the room.

"Your eyes look like ice on fire sometimes," Said Karen, knowing by her voicing of this randomly soppy thought that she'd definitely had too much to drink.

"How do you mean?" Asked Yvonne smiling. Karen reached for the cigarette with her left hand.

"You'll drop it if you're not used to smoking left-handed," said Yvonne raising their mutual addiction to Karen's lips. She could tell by the slight squint in Karen's eyes just how drunk she was.

"It's just, when you're angry, I mean really furious, there's a part of you that's as cold as ice, but if you look deeper, there's a glint that promises rage." Yvonne grinned.

"You've been doing a lot of looking on the sly."

"Do you blame me?" Asked Karen beginning to laugh.

"No," Said Yvonne reaching for her glass that was on the floor by the couch. "It sounds like you've done a lot more thinking about this, us, than you realise." A soft, secretive smile crept over Karen's face as she remembered what too much thinking had led to on Wednesday night. Yvonne then handed Karen her glass. She had to steady Karen's hand when it shook slightly.

"You are completely pissed," Yvonne said with a fond smile.

"Hmm, good isn't it," Replied Karen with a contented sigh.

"You'll have a rotten hangover in the morning."

"Not me," Said Karen, "Hangovers usually creep up on me later on in the day, so I hope Denny behaves herself."

"She will. I can't believe you sorted that."

"Grayling owed me the biggest favour he'll ever owe in his life. I will have to be here, but I can go for a swim or something to give you some space."

"Does Denny know?"

"No, and she won't till I go and get her tomorrow." Putting Karen's glass back down on the floor for her, Yvonne turned and planted tiny kisses along Karen's jawbone until she reached her mouth. The fruitiness of the wine mixed with their own unique taste. Their arms tightened around each other as their kiss seemed to go on and on. They lay there for a long time, listening to the soft music and alternating between kissing and consuming the rest of that final bottle of wine. Karen knew she was far more drunk than on that occasion with Fenner, but she couldn't have felt safer, more relaxed in Yvonne's arms. When the CD reached its end, Yvonne said,

"Do you want to stay?" Karen simply raised an eyebrow. "Not for that," Yvonne grinned, "But you're clearly in no state to drive." When, a short while later, Karen had borrowed a spare toothbrush and the skimpiest black silk nightie she'd ever seen, she lay in Yvonne's enormous four-poster, and listened to her locking up downstairs. When Yvonne joined her in bed, also clad in what surely was no bigger than a serviette, they moved together like they'd been doing it all their lives. Karen's body seemed to mould itself round Yvonne's slightly smaller frame, so that neither could tell where one ended and the other began. As they slid quickly towards sleep, they both took maximum comfort in being held through nighttime's darkest hours.

Part Thirty Four

John Deed looked furtively over his shoulder as he slipped his way out of the judge's chambers. He was dressed in a long black overcoat with his collar turned up and carried under his arm a curiously shaped black case. It was a chill cloudy evening as he slipped into his car and started to mentally assume his other persona which had been a part of him since he was a law student. However, this was no grotesque evening transformation and dissociation of the tall respectable Dr Jeckyll into the smaller evil Mr Hyde by drinking some evil chemical. Instead, the learned Judge John Deed, steeped in the ways and practices of the law, was invisibly transforming himself into the amateur virtuoso violinist in a string quintet. That part of John Deed's soul was set free as far as his talent with the violin bow searched out the sounds from a classical era. It spoke of people, long since buried in tree shaded churchyards but of music kept alive by such enthusiasts of an order as old as his daytime calling. Not even Jo Mills knew of it, only as a prespoken recorded message that he was not in or an absence in her life that she was not to intrude into. Knowing that John Deed was not immune from the undertow of his upbringing, Jo supposed it to be some male bonding ritual from his adolescence at which point, Jo was not far wrong. John never talked about this side of his personality because of some curious unconscious need to be reticent about this side of his life. He never allowed himself to question just why he had to erect this iron curtain of secrecy.

John Deed sped through the city streets in the direction of the ghastly newish concert hall that some thoughtless town councillors allowed to be erected on the site of its predecessor, which was unfortunately burnt down. It was all concrete buttresses and plate glass asserting its ageing 70s modernity and spawning a smaller hall to one side totally out of proportion. He oughtn't to complain because that hall, the Darwin Room, provided him and his string quartet with a regular venue for the musically discerning as opposed to the bigger Assembly Rooms which were booked for some pubescent girl band whose name he could not remember. Streams of very young boys and girls in strange attire rushed past him, obviously heading off to see the main attraction.

Jo Mills splashed droplets of water over her tired eyes to wake herself up. The week had been pretty gruelling and though she had been long accustomed to the sheer buzz and the highly focussed concentration carrying her through each trial, she felt a total reaction as if she were coming off some powerfully addictive drug. Blankly, she stared at the wall calendar and, with an effort, focussed her eyes on the scrawled words "string quintet" and a circle round today's date. Of course, she'd been in town what seemed like ages ago one Saturday morning and seen a rather artistically drawn Toulouse Lautrec style poster with the advert "An Evening of Schubert" in the Assembly Rooms ticket office. On a sudden impulse, she had bought the ticket which she now discovered crumpled up at the back of her purse, right at the bottom of her handbag.

Half an hour later, having showered and drinking a large black coffee, she was dressed in her most elegant best and was queuing up outside the Darwin Room waiting to shuffle her way out of the biting cold into the warmth behind the double swing doors. She handed in her coat at the cloakroom and made her stately way up the wide carpeted flight of steps and into the brilliant white interior of the suite and her chair which was towards the back. She assumed her place and looked intently at the raised stage and where the performers, according to the tannoy announcement, were to take the stage in two minutes.

John Deed gathered backstage and changed into his most formal black suit and starched white shirt, as were his fellow enthusiasts. In John Deed's eyes, this was a performance where dressing up was the necessary ritual to lend dignity to the music that they were solemnising. His four fellow enthusiasts came from different walks of life but united in a common devotion. A little part of him was glad that not one of the others had anything to do with the law. This was the key to his mental balance and, paradoxically that this greater contact outside the cloistered walls of chambers made him a better judge than his peers. Ready to take to the stage, they took a final sip from a bone china cup of tea laid out on a side table, opened the door and a round of polite applause greeted them and the stage lights pointed them to their allotted places.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I must say it's incredibly gratifying to see so many of you here. I hope we live up to expectation. We promise for you a quite different evening of music than Girls Aloud Seven in the Assembly Rooms across the way." John Deed's voice ended on a note of typically dry humour.

Jo Mills sat bolt upright in her chair. Surely that well remembered voice must belong to another man in this world. If not, he bears an alarming resemblance to John or else she was suffering from an aural hallucination after a week in court with John's presence always to one side of her and up on stage in his judges chair?

As Jo heard the first sonorous chord struck by the strings which were answered by the light upward arpeggio from the piano, John Deed, in a moment of concentration prepared his answer as first violinist. In a moment of precise control and expressiveness, he arched his bow and launched his free spirit into the piece.

Jo could visualise the sunlight waters and trees shading over the water and the playful way the pianist and the violinists answered each other while the viola and cellos sonorous tone reached up from below. The quick flowing waters rushed headlong into cross cutting currents of music that danced over and under each other. Jo could admire the impeccable way that the violinist's musical themes were answered by the other musicians and that it all flowed into each other in perfect musical harmony. After the lightness and playfulness of the first movement, there was a brief pause. Then, John Deed led the quintet into the more still waters and serenity that was to come and echoed his own sense of peacefulness as they played on. Somehow stage nerves which afflicted some musicians didn't seem to affect him the same way as it did others. Outside his own dancing bow and the light, the darkness into which the audience were sunk, hardly registered except for the respectful silence which gave him all the applause he needed.

That is definitely John Deed on stage out there, Jo Mills said unbelievingly to herself. There is no other person it could be. She grinned to herself that John Deed needed this form of outlet so that he could achieve effortlessly the harmony that he had to fight for in court. Imagine me, George, John, Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James in the same orchestra. The music they would make together would be all chaos and uproar. Only Schoenberg or Mahler would fit the bill.

Jo wondered, firstly at the music which had always entranced her and secondly at the flawless performance. The gentle pizzicato strings were hushed as the pianist described musical patterns that subtly shifted in key in the softer musical passage.

John Deed smiled in satisfaction to himself as he led off the 'trout' theme which was an old German folk tune that Schubert had borrowed for his piece and Jo Mills remembered her old music teacher explaining this to her at school. The pianist gambolled along the same melody line that the violins had sketched out while tiny shards of exquisite notes sounded from the top of the violin's register and embroidered the melody. They were on the home straight now, John reflected, and he was as sharp-eyed and as confident as he had ever felt in his life. It was at moments like this that he thought of himself as a musician first and foremost and everything outside this faded into insignificance as the corners of the hall had faded into the dark.

Jo shook her head in wonder. That's my man, at least some of the time, out there.

Why oh why has John been so shy and reticent about such a supreme gift with which he is blessed. I cannot believe this of the scourge of Lord Chancellor's Departments and the most 'proud to be outrageous' man she had ever met. She had an ear for phrases which stuck in her mind and 'I don't do shy' came into her mind, no doubt a phrase she had unconsciously lifted from something in the media somewhere.

At the last musical flourish, the audience broke into applause which Jo joined in as enthusiastically as anyone, part of her for the virtuoso performance and a part of her for a person she thought she knew intimately displaying a side of him that she never knew existed. And it was not just for selfishly singling out John Deed on his own but in focussing on the other four unknown men who must have similar daytime callings who had moulded in their musical feelings to produce an ensemble triumph. The quintet laid down their instruments and bowed in acknowledgement to the crowd and moved off stage left to the door at the back.

"A splendid performance, everyone. "John Deed's voice resonated through the dressing room after he had overcome the feelings of stiffness in his arms and chin against which his violin had been buttressed all evening. Only now was he conscious of this and these feelings soon passed. Despite the intense concentration of the performance, on top of their daytime jobs, they felt as fresh and alert as anytime in their lives.

"I'm sure your Toulouse Lautec painting helped to bring in the crowds, Andrew old man." John Deed generously praised the pianist who had a triple talent which was something which John Deed felt awesome respect for.

"I don't suppose that it will bring in the backstage groupies like that girl band will attract, John." Andrew replied with a faint smile.

"Good Lord, no. I'm quite sure that Schubert never had to deal with that in his time." John Deed laughed. "I'm just popping out for a second."

Jo smiled to herself. She couldn't leave the evening just by sliding off to her car and driving home. Her sharp eyes had spotted the stage door to the side of the cloakroom and, after she had collected her coat, she stood there, a glass of wine in her hand and a pen and pencil in her other hand. Mischievously, she stood in wait.

"Excuse me, can I trouble you for your autograph. sir?" Jo Mills asked in her politest most innocent voice that she could contrive."I trust that your future performances will be every bit as satisfying as this night's performance has been."

For the first time in his life, John Deed's facility for words and ability to marshal his thoughts had utterly deserted him. His hand stretched towards the pen and his fingers closed around it as he scribbled his name.

"Why oh why do you hide such a talent like yours under a bushel in the way that you have done for all these years that I've ever known you." Jo Mills's words and the straightness of her gaze reached deep inside his mind and just about held him back from flinching and running." Honestly, John, if I'd never known who you are, I would have felt that I had witnessed a totally brilliant performance. And the fact that the man I thought I know so well…….." And Jo looked soulfully, without reservation at the John deed who was the maestro musician and not the brilliant barrister and mentor that her own pride had to fight with.

John Deed felt bashful, embarrassed and proud of himself in one confusing cocktail of emotions and was still unable to speak. Jo grinned to herself that, for once John Deed was stuck for words yet everything about his demeanour said everything she wanted to know.

"And. of course, you are not too tired to give an encore performance?" Jo's husky tones gradually erased the confusion in his own mind.

"And what were you saying a few minutes ago, John?" Andrew quipped to him." See you at the next rehearsal." To him, John was the charismatic leader of the quintet. He was not sure of exactly what his daytime job was but it couldn't be as soulless as working at a Social Security office where all his workmates talked about was David Beckham and the World Cup. John was an enthusiast about music and someone that he loved balancing his piano technique against John's flawless and expressive violin playing. The woman he was with was very attractive and seemed to have an instant attraction for John, lucky bugger.

"I'll be in touch, Andrew." John promised him." I think that I had better be going." as Jo Mills slipped her arm inside John's.

It was only five minutes later that Jo was strolling to the multistory car park next to John who carefully held his violin case next to him. Up the endless flights of concrete steps and to his car, they walked in silence while from afar, a throbbing sound punctuated by shrill squeals announced that Girls Aloud Seven, or whatever they were called, were still entertaining their fans. In the car, she looked at this indeterminate being sitting next to her still wondering just who he was as they circled their endless way round concrete columns and down the steep ramps in the queue of traffic. Just who was the driver in the car, the judge John Deed whose foibles that she had known so long or the mysterious stranger, the violin virtuoso why she'd somehow pulled from meeting at the stage door?

They chatted casually of everyday things as he drove. Only the street lights and car beams cast a momentary light on the source of the well remembered voice, the one constant feature of this being before fading into blackness.

For his part, John Deed was coming down gently from the delicious intensity of emotion, the jagged Mount Everest pinnacle of sensation that he'd climbed up to in gradual stages. So many times over the years, they had driven back to Jo's cottage but an evening like this made everything special, every sensation somehow heightened. Afterwards, he couldn't remember one word of what he'd said to her in the car but it seemed to make sense at the time, as did everything in the universe that night.

"Who are you?" Jo Mills asked with great curiosity when her front door was shut and even the low lights banished the visual ambiguities of the late night drive.

"You know who I am," came the melodious answer which questioned why she should come out with this peculiar question. After all, in the courtroom devoted to the dry accumulation of facts, such an enquiry was patently absurd for which there was no legal precedent. Yet right now, everything that mattered in Jo's world was totally unprecedented.

Don't even question, came her own answer as the impeccable black suit was draped carelessly on the floor and her best dress alongside it. Back in the comfortable security of her bed, John was the confident lover who seemed even more skilled in the arts of love and giving pleasure than she was accustomed to from him. In a split second, her mind went back to the many years ago when they first went to bed together. Back then it seemed totally and utterly special to be with the man with the virtuoso gifts that she so admired. She was reliving such a night as past and present coexisted in the same place and the same time. The next hour or more was a blissful exploration of the physical and the sensuous which was the perfect finale to the spirituality of earlier on. 'Making music together' was one of the corniest, most absurd expressions Jo have ever heard but right now it made sense. Presently, they lay there, while their breathing returned to normal curled up round each other while the occasional beam from the lonely driver on the road outside flashed by. The gentle flicker of light and the feel of their bodies against each other made this night special.

"So now I know where the pure talent in your hands came from." Jo said, tracing a line down John Deed's cheekbone.

"You don't mind that I've kept this little secret from you all these years," came the just slightly worried question from above her in that very familiar voice.

"You don't have to worry, John." came that very soft, slightly husky voice that had attracted him so long ago. "You are safe with me whoever you are."

And the delicate touch of her hands drew him down to her once again.

Part Thirty Five

On the Sunday morning, Yvonne woke to the warm contented feeling of being held in a pair of gentle arms. I could get used to this, she thought. Gradually becoming aware that Trigger was trying to nuzzle his way under the duvet to get to her, she reluctantly disentangled herself from Karen's soft warm body and got out of bed. When she let Trigger out of the back door, she stood in the cool, early morning air and breathed in the smell of grass speckled with dew, and watched as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon. She couldn't believe how happy with life she was this morning. In spite of the fact that they were in the middle of her son's trial, Yvonne could seriously say that most of her life was good. Herself and her daughter were safe, at least as safe as a member of the Atkins family could ever be, she lived in a glorious house and materially lacked for nothing, and upstairs, asleep in her bed, was Karen. If, a year ago, someone had told Yvonne that not only would she have kissed another woman, but spent the night in her arms, and be contemplating doing more with her this morning, she'd have laughed in their face. But here she was, Yvonne Atkins, the straightest woman in the business of seduction and conquest, preparing her mind for the possibility that she might in a very short time be making love with a woman, with Karen Betts. The repetition of that kiss last night had been because they'd both had a little too much to drink, and because the mood had been right. Karen had stayed because she'd had far too much to drive and because Yvonne had made it clear that nothing else was on offer, apart from the comfort of not being alone in a cold, empty bed. Slightly shivering, Yvonne came back to her senses to realise that in spite of the rising sun which promised another blisteringly hot day, the morning was still chilly, especially for those who chose to walk round in something that could pass for a large silk handkerchief. Calling softly to Trigger, Yvonne went back inside. Glancing at the kitchen clock, she yawned when she saw that it was only seven o'clock.

When she slipped back under the duvet, Karen turned over towards her. Karen was still in the blissful stage between sleeping and waking when the senses are on overdrive and the brain is still relatively dormant.

"You're cold," Karen said as she came in to contact with Yvonne's body.

"I just went to let Trigger out," Said Yvonne, snuggling up to Karen as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"What time is it?"

"It's still early."

"I can't believe I'm here," Said Karen after a while.

"No, me neither," murmured Yvonne leaning forward to plant a chased kiss on Karen's slightly parted lips. Karen moved her hand up and gently ran Yvonne's hair through her fingers. Yvonne kissed her again, this time so languorously that Karen's eyes acquired a glazed expression which Yvonne found incredible. Their mouths fought for dominance as they both displayed exactly how they had been able to hook anyone they chose. When Karen began to push Yvonne away, Yvonne looked concerned. At the sight of Yvonne's worried expression, Karen grinned,

"Yvonne," She said, "Please either stop now or take this further." Yvonne's husky laugh made Karen smile.

"And which would you prefer it to be?" Asked Yvonne, almost certain of the answer she would get.

"if you stop now," Said Karen with a frown. "I swear that's the last time I buy you a birthday card." At first Yvonne stared at her, but then she saw the hint of a gleam in Karen's eyes and laughed.

"Now that's what I call a challenge," Yvonne said with a leer.

"That's up to you," Replied Karen.

"Well, seeing as you're in my bed and therefore very special, your wish is my command."

When Yvonne began kissing her again, Karen spared a thought to wonder just where Yvonne had learnt to kiss like that. Yvonne felt a moment of slight trepidation, wondering if she could really pull this off. The only one who had received such an erotic delicacy from her was herself. Oh well, she thought, when did an Atkins ever refuse a challenge. Karen noticed Yvonne's brief hesitation and reached for her hand.

"Would you rather we were doing this the other way round?" She asked. This simple question seemed to bring Yvonne back on course for her goal, to give Karen the time of her life.

"No," She said, "Having never done this before, I just hope I'm good enough, that's all."

Karen gently guided Yvonne's hand to her breast. This was a first for both of them and Karen knew it might take some time before they were both entirely comfortable with the situation. Yvonne's feather-light touch seemed to set a spark to nerve endings Karen wasn't aware she had. When Yvonne grazed her thumb over Karen's nipple, the combination of the friction provided by the silk nightie Karen was wearing, plus the slightly forbidden aura of what they were doing, provoked a low, throaty moan from Karen which Yvonne stifled with a kiss.

"Must be the feminine touch," Said Yvonne, her tone of voice clearly telling Karen that Yvonne was as turned on as she was.

"You're telling me," Was all Karen could say in response.

"It'd be a whole lot better without this," Stated Yvonne, tugging lightly at the equally skimpy piece of black silk Karen had slept in. Heartily agreeing, Karen pulled off the bundle of silk and lay back down. She moved to pull the duvet back over them but Yvonne lifted a hand to stop her. With the help of the rays of the early morning sun that were peeping through the partly open curtains, Yvonne gazed at Karen. From her firm, full breasts to her well defined hips, to her long, tanned legs. Karen simply lay there and watched Yvonne, knowing how eye-catching she could be once divested of the formal suits that usually hid most of what she had to offer.

"See something you like?" Asked Karen dryly.

"Yeah," Said Yvonne, slightly dazed. "You're beautiful."

"And you've got an unfair advantage," Replied Karen, fingering the hem of Yvonne's pale blue nightie, which had ridden almost to the top of her thighs. When Yvonne had discarded her own excuse for a serviette, Karen stared in slight envy at Yvonne's well-toned torso. The benefits of having your own pool, she thought.

"The ten years between thirty eight and forty eight aren't so kind to the body," Said Yvonne, for the first time realising what their difference in ages might mean.

"Yvonne, trust me, you have a body most people would die for." This seemed to bring Yvonne's confidence back on track. Almost as if she were about to run her hand over the Mona Lisa, Karen ran her hand down Yvonne's sternum, and moved to circle a breast. It surprised her how soft female skin was, compared to the coarse, hair-strewn outer shell of a man. Yvonne gently pushed Karen back on to her back and returned to her earlier ministrations. Karen recaptured Yvonne's mouth and nibbled lightly at her lower lip. Yvonne gradually kissed her way down Karen's neck and chest, until she found herself giving one of Karen's nipples the attention it clearly deserved. When Karen felt Yvonne's mouth doing exquisite things to her finest assets, making two of the most sensitive points of her body become as hard and erect as pebbles in a reseeding tide, she couldn't help but gasp.

"Like that, do you?" Asked Yvonne, moving to the other breast so as not to neglect it.

"Too much," Answered Karen, in the sort of strangled, sultry voice that told Yvonne that she was definitely doing something right.

"You can never like anything too much," Stated Yvonne, "It just isn't possible."

"Oh, I don't know, you could easily become addictive." Yvonne trailed her hand down Karen's side, and across her stomach.

"It isn't as flat as I'd like it to be," Said Karen, "But I guess that's the result of doing what amounts to a desk job for the last three years." Yvonne hushed her gently.

"Just relax," She said, "And enjoy it." When Yvonne traced the smattering of hair between Karen's legs, she decided that the best course of action was to do what she'd done to herself for longer than she cared to remember, and to follow Karen's reactions to it. The last thing she wanted to do was to fail at this. Her biggest concern was that Karen should feel right about this. Yvonne didn't especially care about her own pleasure, she simply wanted to make Karen believe that she deserved to enjoy making love again.

When Yvonne moved her hand to the juncture of Karen's thighs, they parted in clear invitation. Yvonne feared that she would act like a fumbling adolescent, but it seemed that the same rules did apply to Karen as they had to herself. At the first contact with her clit, Karen groaned in pure ecstasy. Encouraged by this, Yvonne moved her hand over and around this pinnacle of all Karen's desires. When she teased at Karen's entrance with a well manicured finger, the widening of Karen's legs couldn't have given her a clearer signal.

"Jesus," Yvonne said in surprise, "You're so wet." Karen laughed in that same sultry way she had in the pub all those months ago.

"That's all down to you." Yvonne simultaneously slipped two fingers inside her and resumed alternately nibbling and soothing the sensitive flesh of Karen's nipples. At the feel of three sources of pure pleasure, Karen's whole body jerked. Yvonne's hand increased its speed, and Karen's internal muscles began twitching, a sure sign she was nearing her peak. Yvonne looked up in to Karen's face and saw that she was doing her utmost to keep her eyes open, so as to see the woman who was doing this to her. There was such a depth of emotion in those eyes that it made Yvonne gasp.

"come for me, sweetheart," She said, meaning every word of it. The encouragement to ride the waves of pure passion and the thorough naughtiness of the unfamiliar territory they were in made Karen almost crush Yvonne's wrist between her thighs. She made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob as her orgasm crashed over her in wave after wave. Her whole body shuddered, and Yvonne found herself cradling a sobbing, shaking Karen. All she could do was to hold her and soothe away the trembling which certainly took its time in abating. Karen didn't think she'd ever cried this hard, but she was so happy. In giving her such an explosive orgasm that was so totally about her, and in giving her back the feelings she never thought she would have again, Yvonne had freed her. She was finally free of that aching chasm of inability to enjoy sex of any kind. She'd thought she would be trapped in that cave of self-destruction for ever, but Yvonne had managed to free her soul from the frightening confines of that lifelong cell of not being able to love again.

"Was it that bad?" Asked Yvonne in a mock serious tone that made Karen laugh through her gradually decreasing tears.

"No," She said, "It was the best I've had in a long time. You've got no idea what you just did, have you? I expected to never enjoy being close to anyone again, but you've set me free." Coming from a woman who used to lock her up, Yvonne caught the full force of the irony of that one. Then Karen gave her a very severe mock glare.

"And you must be the biggest liar I ever met, Yvonne Atkins."


"You told me you'd never done that before."

"So, I haven't, at least not to someone else. The hours between eight in the evening and eight the next morning can get very long and lonely, you know."

"I see," Said Karen, her breathing beginning to return to normal. "so that's what happens in all that spare time." Then Karen remembered that she'd been the only one to achieve release so far that morning. She gave Yvonne a long, enticing kiss.

"I doubt if I'll come up to that standard," She said with the wickedest grin Yvonne had ever seen. "But I'll try."

"No," Yvonne said softly. "There's time enough for that." They simply lay, holding each other's warm, soft-skinned bodies. They could hear the birds through the open window, and see the sun as the breeze gently flapped the curtains. They lay covered by a thin sheet, the duvet having been discarded long ago. No words needed to be said. The enormity of what had happened that morning was slowly beginning to sink in. As Yvonne had said, there was time enough for Karen to do the same to her later. All that mattered was how complete they felt, how safe and cherished they were in their own secluded world as they gently drifted towards sleep.

Karen woke around ten, to see Yvonne gazing at her. She stretched luxuriously.

"That is way too sexy," Said Yvonne with a smile.

"Good," Said Karen, leaning over to plant a light kiss on Yvonne's lips. Then glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she said, "I'd better go. I've yet to break the news to Denny that she's coming to see you this afternoon."

"I can't believe you did that," Said Yvonne, "I don't deserve you."

"After this morning," Said Karen with a grin, "I'd say the shoe was on the other foot."

"Nice to know I'm good at something," Replied Yvonne.

"Would you like me to return the favour?" Asked Karen, running a lazy finger over Yvonne's shoulder. A guarded look came over Yvonne's face.

"Sorry," She said, "But no. Making love to you was probably one of the most enchanting things I've ever been part of, but it might take me a little while before I want the same." Karen was deeply touched.

"You don't need to explain," Karen said gently. "You just let me know when you're ready for the best time of your life." As Yvonne stood at the front door in a thin dressing-gown and watched Karen drive away, she wondered just what she'd done to deserve something, someone so special. What she'd given to Karen earlier that morning hadn't been wrong, it'd been right, it'd been full of lust, happiness and possibly the beginnings of love. As she brewed herself some coffee, she heard Lauren open the front door. She poked her head round the kitchen door.

"You slept late, mum?" Was Lauren's greeting.

"Yeah," Was all Yvonne could say in reply, not quite sure how much she wanted her daughter to know of the morning's events. "Are you going to be here this afternoon?" She asked, wanting Lauren to stay for when Denny arrived, but at the same time knowing that Lauren might not be wild about the idea.

"I might be," Said lauren guardedly. Lauren was further unsettled a while later when, on going in to her mother's bedroom to borrow some hairspray, she observed that the bed was unmade on both sides, undoubtable proof that her mother had spent the night with Karen.

Part Thirty Six

Denny woke up on yet another Sunday morning which wasn't any different from any other. The morning felt crap and the rest of the day wasn't going to get better. She just had that feel about things. There, in the top bunk opposite, the large mound under the shabby quilt contained Al's sleeping body. The sun shone in through the steel bars high up in the cell but that didn't make her feel warmer inside or feel any better about herself.

Karen parked her green sports car in her usual spot and handed in her keys to a surprised Ken on the gate who wondered why the Wing Governor was in on a Sunday lunchtime and why she seemed so happy with herself. Any screw turning in on a Sunday was only happy when he'd filled in his overtime claim form and figured out how much it would rake in. She walked rapidly across the courtyard before reaching for her bunch of keys and wondered why such a grey, prosaic scenery could look so sharp, so well defined and new.

"Morning, maam. Surprised to see you in today." Bodybag's suspicious tones enquired." Come to see how the troops are going on."

The last remark was her muted version of 'Have you come to spy on us?' but not so muted that Betts wouldn't get the hint.

"I've only come in to do a spot of work that I couldn't do at home," Karen replied quite truthfully leaving Bodybag to draw the quite erroneous conclusion that she would be working in the office. She had that delicious lazy slightly sleepy self satisfied feeling from a night with Yvonne that nothing could shake. Bodybag was just a minor irritation that could float off elsewhere and take her gloom and misery with her. Perhaps she hadn't been getting it since well before her Bobby died and that was what made her crotchety and determined that everyone else would be made miserable and sexually frustrated too.

Denny's hopes and fears for the trial had been seesawing all week as her life was on hold until the trial was over. At least she would know the best or the worst. The best moment this week came when she heard Yvonne's familiar reassuring voice over the phone midweek. Yvonne could take one look at her and see behind that hard angry surface the scared or perplexed child underneath. Her blend of humour and warmth could lift that black mood of depression and cheer her up, even from the unlikely setting of Betts's room. It did her good to hear that familiar voice over the phone when Yvonne's as much as if she was there in the flesh was with her even if it were out there and disembodied. Looking back on that day, it seemed strange to her to be hauled into the room where, time after time, an angry faced Wing Governor dispensed one way justice over her head as a preliminary to two screws grabbing her by each shoulder and hauling her off down to the block. Miss Stewart sent her there once and it did her head in, shut away on her own away from human contact. Nothing scared her more than that.

"Denny Blood, will you report immediately to Miss Betts's office." Bodybag leaned over her while she was chatting to Al at breakfast table. Bloody hell, the frigging screws won't let her even light a fag after luncht when she was dying to light up.

"What's it this time." Denny demanded aggressively. She ran over in her mind exactly what she might have done in the last week that some bitch might have grassed her up for. Betts had been all right in letting her talk to Yvonne over the phone from her room but that same ingrained reaction kicked in every time.

"You'll find out soon enough when you come with me." Bodybag replied enigmatically. In truth, she was as curious as anyone else as since when did Madam change the habits of a lifetime and come in on a Sunday. She had just appeared, breezed in unexpectedly from nowhere. Bodybag went in first while Denny waited outside and worried.

"Will that be all?" Bodybag asked suspiciously."Will you need me for later, only my shift ends in a few hours time and I'm off to cook my dinner."

"That will be all, Sylvia," Karen smiled."Except……."

"Except what" Bodybag irritably

"…..Except that I shall be out for the day, on prisoner escort taking Denny Blood to Yvonne Atkins's house for the day. Don't worry, I'll be responsible for security and I won't make any extra work for the late shift." Karen told her with perfect aplomb.

"Daniella Blood," Bodybag started to say but her mouth stuck fast opened in anger, as the words never came. Other than to question the decision openly, there was no specious argument that she could use.

"Ah, Denny, take a seat," Karen greeted her with a dazzling smile when Denny had knocked to enter and Bodybag stomped off past her, moaning under her breath.

Denny was still looking warily though her first impressions of Miss Betts was that she seemed to be in a good mood. Perhaps the worst that will happen will be a warning.

"Denny, how would you like the idea of a day out under escort to Yvonne's house for her birthday." And Karen's wide smile was focussed on her.

"That's cool, Miss Betts." Denny's reply contained restrained enthusiasm though it sounded too good to be true. "But when's the day?"

"Like, twenty minutes time to get yourself ready and I'll be the escort. Does that sound good enough."

"Wicked." Denny could only react with her most overused word which covered a multitude of feelings. This seemed too good to be true but Miss Betts was telling her this one. If nothing else, Betts was good for making good any promise that she made, good news or bad. At least bleeding Fenner wasn't going to be the escort.

"Have you got everything you need for the day,"Karen asked a very excited Denny looking precisely like her eight year old former self out for the day for a treat and dressed in a smarter outfit than her inevitable combat trousers and sleeveless T shirt. Denny wasn't into makeup and never had been apart from that mysterious phase when for a short while, she paraded around, all dolled up and in a mini skirt.

"Sorry to have to put the handcuffs on, Denny." Karen said very apologetically. Denny nodded in acknowledgement as this was still Larkhall and to her, Miss Betts played fair enough.

Denny looked round in Karen's green sports car and this, to her was her first taste of luxury and another was when Karen slipped off the handcuffs just outside prison with a smiling remark that they would look a sight handcuffed together for Yvonne's birthday.

Denny lay back in the luxury of the car seat, her hand resting on the wound down car window and luxuriating in it all. Karen was softly singing to herself an Elton John song, as it brought back the flavour of last night. To Karen, that song would be indissolubly linked to a feeling of carefree happiness and freedom.

"I saw you dancing out the ocean
Running fast along the sand
A spirit born of earth and water
Fire flying from your hands

In the instant that you love someone
In the second that the hammer hits
Reality runs up your spine
And the pieces finally fit

And all I ever needed was the one
Like freedom fields where wild horses run
When stars collide like you and I
No shadows block the sun
You're all I've ever needed
Baby you're the one

There are caravans we follow
Drunken nights in dark hotels
When chances breathe between the silence
Where sex and love no longer gel

For each man in his time is Cain
Until he walks along the beach
And sees his future in the water
A long lost heart within his reach "

Denny listened while Miss Betts was singing half to herself and wondered lazily what was making her feel so good. Up till then, screws didn't have a private life. They existed only in uniform apart from the gaps in time between which they passed in or out of the prison gates. This woman seemed different and was taking her very kindly to Yvonne's house when she might have other things to do. That was nice of her.

They passed out of the snarling traffic noises and stop start of city streets, out towards spacious suburbs.

"There's a florist, Miss Betts. You've got to let me buy some flowers for Yvonne.

Karen smiled indulgently as her parent days instinct kicked in and she trailed after an excitable Denny as she wavered indecisively between various ideas.

The perfume of the flowers in the shop, in itself was a novelty. Eventually, the gift wrapped flowers were laid down carefully in the back seat of the car and Karen carried on with the dreamy ride. Presently, the car whizzed into the front drive of absolutely the largest house Denny had seen in her life which towered over her.

"Fucking hell" Denny breathed in total gobsmacked wonderment when she stood outside the car looking all around her, her eyes almost refusing to believe the evidence in front of them. Karen smiled understandingly, remembering her own feelings a lifetime ago when she had first really entered Yvonne's world for the first time. Denny's feet carried themselves slowly past the expensive cars while she looked all around her at the world she had suddenly been pitchforked into.

The front door opened and a riotous splash of luxurious colours and smells hit Denny in the face but in the middle of it was Yvonne as she had always known her. She held out her arms and Yvonne gave her a big hug. All Denny knew was that Yvonne sounded the same looked the same as she always was.

"Happy birthday, man" Denny eventually said."If you'd told me before, I would have got you something better than this." Denny said with more confidence than she felt.

"These flowers and having you here, Denny, is enough. You don't need to worry." Yvonne said softly, knowing exactly how Denny was feeling. When they were all at Larkhall together, they all had the same cell, suffered the same hardships, it was just that Yvonne was able to sneak or legally get in anything from guitars to miniature bottles of scotch. This was different.

"You'll know my daughter, Lauren. She's no stranger to you." Yvonne gestured to her daughter Lauren who was politely standing back, looking questioningly at her.

For the first time, Denny took in the surroundings and the sheer sensation of size stretching away from her hit her, after years accustomed to the close confinement of her cell, threading her way past crowded corridors, up and down narrow metal staircases and keeping her arms close to her body. The staircase in the hall was impossibly wide, and carpeted, winding its way round to a top half of the house she could only guess at. Expensive pictures hung upon the walls.

"Come through this way and I'll fix you and the others a drink." Yvonne gestured.

In a daze, Denny could only follow the others blindly into the lounge where she sank into an enormous armchair that seemed to curl itself around her. She leant back while a drink was put into her hand and she was offered a cigarette. She inhaled a lungful of air deeply and relaxed with a rush into the scenery that she now found herself in. It wasn't just the nicotine but also the feeling of luxury of the house. It wasn't just the sip of beer that went to her head as she chattered away in a much more expansive Denny than she was used to being for a long time.

A large black Alsatian dog made its noisy audience, wagging its tail and made its way towards Denny sensing a friend and asking to be made a fuss of. Denny was in her element and patted him.

"Since he's made a friend of you, Denny, I ought to explain that his name is Trigger." Karen smiled by way of explanation to Denny who had found another little fragment of experience from the outside world that she had not experienced since she lived at the Children's Home, one good memory of the place that she had. It reminded her forcibly of her first love Jo Hall, the social worker in charge who had a similar dog.

"Excuse us, Denny, while Trigger takes over as usual," Yvonne smiled.

"I'll take him out for a walk in a bit, Mum. He could do with some exercise and it's still your birthday." Lauren offered graciously. In reality, she wanted to clear her head and get her head round the thought that Mum and Karen had slept together last night. She was a bit conscious that all the focus of attention was going to Denny while Lauren, who did everything uncomplainingly was being marginalised. "I'll be back a bit later on. See you Mum."

Trigger, on hearing the magic word 'walk' had trotted off ahead and returned gripping between his teeth the lead and made a fuss of Lauren in turn who was now his clear favourite.

The room quietened down after Trigger took Lauren for a walk and Denny had more chance to take in her surroundings. Facing her, was the most enormous fireplace that she could imagine outside a photo shoot in OK Magazine. To one side was a luxurious sofa that Karen and Yvonne naturally settled into.

If Yvonne and Karen Betts aren't shagging, thought Denny, then dress me up in a bleeding wedding dress to get hitched to a guy in a top hat and tails. There is most definitely a feeling between each other and the way that Karen Betts behaves that she is at home here, that she belongs with Yvonne.

"I can't believe it, man." Denny said, smiling and shaking her head."I kind of thought you'd have a nice house but I didn't expect anything like this."

"It does take some getting used to, Denny." Karen smiled.

This is a different woman than the Miss Betts that I am used to, Denny thought. This woman is so relaxed and so cool, Denny thought admiringly. There was a natural flair and sophistication with which Karen carries herself, and a real kind heartedness. This was a woman who if she were reborn and had the chance of reincarnation, then she might want to grow up and be like.

"How are you getting on. I hope you have made dead sure that you haven't let some bastard get near to you like you promised."

"You can take it as read, Denny," Yvonne smiled smugly to herself,"That the chance of that happening right now is even less than when I was at Larkhall and the only decent man around that way was the bleeding vicar." The way that Karen looked sideways at Yvonne looking like the cat that had lapped up the cream removed Denny's last doubts, improbable though the idea was on Yvonne's past public reputation. However, she kept her thoughts to herself.

The three of them sank back into feelings of deep content that a sunny, lazy afternoon can bring in. The afternoon sun shone in through the windows and Denny felt more than anything that she was in the family situation that she had longed for all her life. She had once seen one of her friend's father drive up to the children's home she lived in and watch them drive away forever in the car and wished it was happening to her. Now she bathed in the warm glow of being wanted while they chatted away inconsequentially.

They drifted out onto the terrace and they fetched out a cold buffet salad out by the swimming pool and a bottle of good white wine. The sun beat down gloriously down on what was a natural heat trap on a summer day. Just then Lauren materialised out from nowhere from the trees at the end of the swimming pool and a very happy Trigger had more humans to adopt. It was heavenly for them all to watch the time go by and all seemed peaceful and serene while the sun described its arc inch by inch across the sky.

"I want to have some time with my mother," Lauren said slightly aggressively suddenly out of nowhere." Nothing personal to you two."

That was the one very slightly edgy note that spoiled the mood of perfection. On the face of it, Lauren was a very strong, highly independent woman who had been used to going her own way, not least when Yvonne had been locked up for several years at Larkhall. Now, Lauren had the air of either being possessive towards her and 'hands off' to any intruders or else simply wanted to have a family stand up row on their own. Karen knew the signs from past experience though a bit of her wondered if Lauren was beginning to catch on to them.

Denny started to become slightly uneasy when Yvonne was being taken away from her when Karen turned to her to reassure her.

"We ought to give them, Denny. Tell you what, I'm going to change into my bikini and I'm going for a swim. I'll keep you company here. Promise." And Karen looked directly into Denny's eyes to promise her that she would not desert her at any price. The irony of Denny actually wanting her prison escort not to desert was not lost on Karen however opposite she appeared to be at that time. Karen had not really abandoned The Wing Governor on prison escort side of the situation but that she knew how to be in control of a situation with very loose reins Denny breathed a huge sigh of relief and sipped her goblet of white wine as the reassuring shape of Karen in a black bikini grew bigger and more real as she approached her. It was Denny's desperate need for a mother figure that caused her first feelings to be of reassurance. Only as Karen came closer did Denny wonder why in hell had she never realised how stunning she looked and how lucky Yvonne was.

Karen dived off into the pool and a slow leisurely backstroke took in gradual pulses of body and leg movement across the width of the pool. She looked up at the blue sky and the trees leaning over above her.

"You'll hit the side, man" Denny called out.

Karen only laughed, twirled her body round in time and splashed water over Denny's attempted sun tan.

"You bitch, you die." Denny called out jokingly.

"You'll have to catch me first," Karen laughed and they started a game of catch which passed the time until a silent Yvonne and a very tensely silent Lauren emerged, not speaking to each other. This did not look good.

Karen was feeling rather chilled and announced that she was going to get changed.

"Do you want a hand with anything, Karen." She asked anxiously.

Karen smiled and nodded. A part of her was enjoying having Denny around like the daughter that she had never had.

It was later that Denny became painfully conscious that time was running out and what she had got was going to slip away from her. Yvonne's house was going to follow a separate path from her life and no matter that she was going to get her freedom in the end, the time that felt like an infinity away and was as if the day of freedom might be never.It never showed on her face except to Yvonne's sharp eyes who made an especial effort to laugh and joke when they had all assembled together and Yvonne and Lauren had at least kept their private row to themselves. The shadows cast by the trees on the swimming pool lengthened and the sun dipped below the line of the trees as they chatted away and smoked and drank.

"We'll have to be going soon, Denny," Eventually Karen said softly and sadly.

"I'm sorry I've not spoken to you more earlier," Lauren said, trying to be her nicest while pointedly ignoring Yvonne." I've been trying to sort out some family matters."

"Same for me, Denny.And thanks for the flowers. I'll be thinking of you."Yvonne said with a slightly strained smile."Come here." And Yvonne gave a big hug to Denny who had never withheld her affection from her. It helped her out as well as Denny.

The sun was low when a miserable Denny climbed into Karen's car and rewound the climb up to the pinnacle of pleasure that she had climbed. As Karen pulled into the courtyard of Larkhall prison, Denny turned round and asked her with pleading in her eyes.

"Do I have to go back?"

It tore at Karen's heart to tell her the truth however unpalatable it was. She knew no other way than the truth though.

"I'm afraid you have to. But you've got Karen Betts looking after you from now on even though I have to be Wing Governor as well."

Denny gave Karen's arm a quick squeeze for telling her that she had gained something this day.

"Come on, I'll have to put the handcuffs on."

Denny held out her hand compliantly while Karen and Karen rattled with the keys as normal and let them in to the dingy cramped prison wing that was her reality.

Karen was mildly surprised to see Sylvia pass by in a tearing hurry.

"I left something in my locker that I needed. Don't think I come to this place for pleasure, Miss Betts."

"No of course not," Karen smiled broadly at the prospect.

Then Sylvia peered closer at her trying to work out what was passing through her mind. Clairvoyant she is not and never will be.

"You look like the cat that got the cream." She said at last.

Got it in one, Sylvia, for once in your life though you don't know it. Then she escorted Denny back to her lonely drab dark cell and locked her in for the night.

"The time will come, Denny. Trust me." She said urgently for herself and Denny who smiled through her tears.

Part Thirty Seven

When Karen arrived at court on Monday morning, she looked fresh, serene, as if a light had been turned on somewhere inside her. After dropping Denny off yesterday, Karen had gone home, opened all her windows, including the doors on to the balcony, and allowed the early evening air to permeate her soul. She'd put on some soppy music, sat out on her balcony and allowed her memories of that morning to replay over and over again. Nothing could have dulled her mood, not even the thought that the very next day, she would have to listen to Ritchie justifying his worming his way under all her defenses. When she sat down between Cassie and Yvonne in the public gallery, Cassie said,

"You're looking extra specially radiant this morning?" Karen quietly laughed. Yvonne briefly touched Karen's hand.

"She's right," Yvonne said softly in her ear. Karen simply smiled.

When Ritchie took the bible in his right hand, Karen was shocked to see how thin he was. No longer did he look like the charismatic, young stud who'd figuratively picked her up last year. He had the all too familiar prison pallor and Karen felt a brief moment of pity for him. George moved forward to open her case.

"Mr. Atkins," She began. "How did you first come to be at Larkhall prison in May last year?"

"I was visiting my mum," Said Ritchie, and Karen reflected that whilst his looks might have changed somewhat, his voice still held the old seductive charm that had lured her to his bed.

"And how long had it been since you'd had contact with your mother," Went on George.

"About four years."

"And why was this?"

"Here it comes," murmured Yvonne, knowing that George would exploit this event time and time again.

"The last time I saw my mum, before I visited her in prison," Said Ritchie, making sure he captured the attention of every member of the jury, "She stood and watched while my dad threatened to nail me to the warehouse floor."

"She didn't do anything to stop this?"

"How fucking thick can you get?" Muttered Lauren, "Like anyone could have stopped dad from doing anything."

"No," Went on Ritchie. "My mother didn't even think of standing up for me."

"Jesus," Said Yvonne in disgust. "You had more chance than I did." Karen went to take Yvonne's hand but on receiving a monumental frown from Lauren, she withdrew.

"So why, after four years did you decide to make contact with your mother?" Asked George.

"I figured that with dad dead, it was safe to come home," Replied Ritchie. "My sister Lauren had everything," He continued, "And I thought I was entitled to some of it."

"Yeah," Said Lauren, her anger quietly rising. "But your sister Lauren worked for it."

"Did you send your mother a bouquet of flowers?" Asked George.

"Yeah, the best way to win mum over's always been with flowers."

"Yeah, and I bleedin fell for it an' all," Said Yvonne deprecatingly.

George moved to the evidence bench and picked up the card from the bouquet.

"What words did you instruct the florist to write on the card?"

"I love you, Mum. No more, no less."

"And did you ask your mother for money?"

"Yeah. Well, let's face it, mum's rolling in the stuff."

"And what was her response?"

"She got Lauren to give me fifty grand. Fifty grand, that's like a fiver compared to what they're sitting on." Yvonne winced.

"Now, please would you tell the court about your brief liaison with Karen Betts?" George wanted to move him swiftly away from pure recrimination.

"She was the sexiest woman I'd seen in a long time," Said Ritchie, a briefly fond expression on his face. "I've never met anyone who liked it as rough as she did." Karen blushed scarlet and wanted nothing more than to disappear off the face of the Earth. Wondering if Ritchie had happened not long after Karen had been raped by Fenner, Jo began to put two and two together as to why Karen had so easily fallen in to Ritchie's trap.

"That will do, Mr. Atkins," Deed's voice resonated round the court. George scowled at John and returned to her witness.

"Mr. Atkins, was it you, or was it Karen Betts who made the initial contact?"

"It was Karen Betts," Said Ritchie, and the way her name rolled off his tongue made Karen's skin crawl with a combination of disgust and remembered excitement.

"Can you tell the court how this was done?" Asked George. Ritchie smiled for the first time that morning. He was clearly aware of Karen's presence in the public gallery, and was putting on this show just for her.

"My mum wanted my phone number, and I asked Karen for a pen for mum to write it down. She must have overheard me saying my mobile number and either remembered it or wrote it down herself." Karen took a breath to protest that Ritchie had said his number louder than necessary to make sure she heard it, but Cassie put a quick, restraining hand on her arm. "Later that night," Went on Ritchie, clearly enjoying himself. "She sent me this fairly suggestive text message." Now Karen really did want to hide. She turned her face away from Yvonne and found herself looking straight in to Cassie's eyes. About to turn away from her too, she felt Cassie's hand on her arm again and heard her say softly,

"Hey, calm down." Looking for any non-judgmental, inanimate object to focus her gaze on, Karen's eyes briefly met John's. He gave her a reassuring smile as if to say, we've all made fools of ourselves, it happens. Ritchie continued his lurid tale.

"So, I texted her back. Who wouldn't for someone with legs like hers."

"That's it," Muttered Karen. She got up, moved passed Cassie and Roisin and walked out of court as quickly as possible. She ran down the stairs, through the quiet foyer and out in to the sunshine. There was a fountain outside the court, with benches near it and she sat on one of them, feverishly looking for her cigarettes. She thought Yvonne probably wouldn't even want to look at her again after this, never mind anything else.

Back in court, George was saying,

"I have submitted the mobile phone records of Karen Betts' mobile to substantiate this evidence. 3K in your bundle, My Lord."

"Go and see if she's all right," Said Yvonne quietly to Cassie. It had been something of a shock for Yvonne to hear how Karen had acted with her son, but she also knew that Karen would probably be afraid of Yvonne's reaction. As soon as Ritchie's testimony was over, she'd go and find Karen to put her right on that score. No-one as pathetic as her son would make Yvonne think twice about her budding relationship with Karen.

When Cassie walked outside, she could see Karen smoking, with a brooding expression on her face. She sat down next to her.

"Yvonne asked me to make sure you were okay," Said Cassie opening the conversation. Karen laughed mirthlessly.

"I don't know why," She said taking a long drag.

"Perhaps because she's concerned about you?" Ventured Cassie sardonically.

"Yeah, and she's just heard her son describing A how I threw myself at him, and B, what I was like in bed."

"You obviously don't know Yvonne as well as you think you do," Said Cassie quietly. "When it comes to people, she judges them on her impressions and hers alone. Nobody can tell Yvonne what someone's like, she finds that out for herself. She'll no more listen to what Ritchie said than she would Fenner. You need to have a bit more faith in her, and a lot more in yourself." Cassie also lit up a cigarette.

"I can't believe I fell for it," Said Karen, all her fury directed at herself. "He was so charming, so..." She couldn't find the right words to describe the effect he'd had on her. Cassie finished her sentence.

"He was so different from Fenner," Cassie said quietly. Karen blew a smoke ring at a passing pigeon.

"Probably," She conceded. Cassie took a deep breath.

"Look, I don't know what happened with Fenner, and I don't want to know. But I'm guessing you were ripe for the picking where Ritchie was concerned, and that isn't your fault. It's his for being a total wanker. After Maxi Purvis, Yvonne might be one of the least forgiving people I've ever known, but she won't let this get in the way of whatever you and her have got going for each other, because for a start there's nothing to forgive, and second, you're too special to her." Karen was deeply touched by this.

"She's turned me in to a total neurotic," Said Karen with a smile.

"She does have that effect on people," Said Cassie, remembering the time she'd been utterly humiliated to realise Yvonne knew how she'd felt about her.

"Mr. Atkins," Continued George. "Did you plant the gun in Karen Betts' handbag, the last time she stayed with you in your hotel room?"

"No," Was his unequivocal answer.

"Do you have any idea who did?" Asked George, playing on the fact that they only had circumstantial evidence against Ritchie on this point.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Said Ritchie, the charm up to full strength.

"You lying bastard," Muttered Yvonne.

"Now, Mr. Atkins, as I know the prosecution will ask you this if I don't, why precisely did you phone the prison and ask for Snowball Merriman on the fifteenth of June last year?"

"I'd known Snowball for quite a long time before she got sent to Larkhall, so I kept in touch with her. She told me that the vicar was a bit of a push-over and that he'd let her use his phone. All I said was, Is Snowball Merriman there, that hardly constitutes aiding and abetting a criminal, does it?"

"Actually, Mr. Atkins," Replied Deed, "I think it does."

"Well, good for me you're not on the jury then, isn't it."

"On the jury I may not be," Said John nailing Ritchie with the forcefulness and power of his position and personality. "But there's the slightest possibility that I may be the judge to sentence you." If Yvonne hadn't known better, she would have questioned whether or not that was really Charlie sitting down there. Ritchie was his father through and through.

George glared at John, daring him to threaten her witness again. Jo simply gave her a slightly smug smile, as if to say, keep going, let your witness dig himself in to as big a grave as possible.

"Mr. Atkins," George continued. "Please would you tell the court about the day on which you were shot?" Ritchie gave the most theatrical shudder Yvonne had ever seen, even from Merriman herself.

"I only agreed to meet up with Snowball to try and persuade her out of making a run for it. I had no idea she was going to bring a hostage."

"Bollocks!" Exclaimed Yvonne, her voice louder out of anger.

"Mrs. Atkins," Said Deed sonorously, "I have warned you once before, I will not have audience participation in my court. Disobey me again and I will consider banning you from the public gallery." Yvonne looked a little sheepish. Roisin gave her an encouraging smile. Ignoring his mother's little outburst, Ritchie continued.

"When Snowball turned up with Karen Betts, she was half crazy. I think the adrenaline of taking someone hostage had gone to her head. When it looked like she was going to shoot Karen, I had to stop her. Karen Betts might have been easier to pull than a whore in Soho, but she didn't deserve to die." On hearing these words, Yvonne rose swiftly to her feet, hurt and fury evident in her eyes. Lauren and Roisin each grabbed one of her arms and forced her to sit down. Roisin thanked god that Karen hadn't been here to listen to that.

"Mr. Atkins," Said John sounding like a volcano preparing to erupt. "I will not have a mouth like yours in my court. Either tone down your insults and learn some basic courtesy, or get out. If you continue to describe Karen Betts or anyone else in such unnecessary terms, I will have you removed from my court and you will be held in contempt, which you can hardly afford. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal, Judge," Said Ritchie, not sounding the least bit contrite. George, seeing the case for one of her clients crumbling before her eyes, thought it best to cut her losses.

"No further questions, My Lord," She said tonelessly.

"Court is adjourned until two this afternoon. During the break, it would be appreciated if Ms Channing would teach her client some common decency."

Yvonne barely gave the usher time to say "All Rise" before she stalked out of the public gallery and down the stairs. Knowing Karen would have gone somewhere she could smoke, Yvonne went outside and saw Karen and Cassie sitting on the bench. As she walked over, she tried to bring her anger at Ritchie's behaviour under control. Cassie stood up and walked towards Yvonne. Her back to Karen, she gave Yvonne a little thumbs up. When Yvonne sat down next to her, Karen looked studiously away from her.

"I'm sorry I flipped," Karen said, still not looking at Yvonne.

"At least you didn't get bawled at by the judge and threatened with a ban from the public gallery," Replied Yvonne, trying to make Karen smile. It worked.

"Are you serious?" Karen asked, half smiling at her.

"Yeah," Said Yvonne beginning to laugh. "He said something about not having audience participation in his court."

"What made you say whatever you said?" Asked Karen, though she already had a fairly good idea.

"Nothing important," Said Yvonne turning serious again. Karen knew Yvonne was avoiding telling her something Ritchie had clearly said about her, but she didn't press the matter. "Did you really think I'd take a blind bit of notice of what he said?" Asked Yvonne.

"I don't know," Admitted Karen.

"You need to learn to trust me," Said Yvonne quietly. "I make up my own mind about people."

"Cassie said that," Answered Karen.

"She obviously looks deeper in to a person than I've given her credit for," Said Yvonne with a smirk. Then she slid along the bench and put her arm round Karen. "Nothing," She said, her face very close to Karen's, "Is going to spoil what's between us. I mean that." As if to strengthen her argument, Yvonne leaned forward and softly kissed Karen on those full lips she was beginning to know so well.

Walking out of the front doors of the court for her own nicotine fix, Jo stopped at the top of the steps as she witnessed Yvonne softly kissing Karen. Knowing now that she had definitely won her bet with John, her face lit up like a child's on Christmas morning. As she took her first, long, satisfying drag, George joined her, digging for her own cigarettes.

"I didn't think you usually indulged, George?"

"I don't," Replied George. "But this case is more stressful than most." Then she took a closer look at Jo's face. "What are you so pleased about?" She asked.

"I've just had unquestionable proof that John is going to lose a bet," Said Jo gleefully. George's face brightened.

"Tell me more," She said in the slow, upper class drawl that had attracted John to her in the first place. Jo gestured at Yvonne and Karen who were still kissing tenderly on the bench by the fountain. George looked to where Jo had pointed and a brief, rare smile touched her face.

"John didn't believe me that they were more than friends," Jo enlightened George, "So I made him bet on it."

"Broad mindedness never was John's strong point," Said George. "I wouldn't mind being around when he finds out though."

"I think we're being watched," Said Yvonne to Karen. "And I need to see how Lauren's doing."

"I'm sorry," Said Karen. "I seem to be doing nothing but taking you away from her recently." Yvonne knew she was referring to what had happened yesterday afternoon.

"I think Lauren's just finding it hard to accept that her mum is no longer who she thought she was," Said Yvonne, but knowing that all the talk of Karen in court wouldn't have done the situation any favours.

Part Thirty Eight

Di's escort duty was performed with an inextricable mixture of disgust, residual pity and total horror. This was the accomplice of that evil woman who would have casually consigned half a dozen prisoners to a fiery choking hell if it hadn't been for the fire brigade. One woman did die, Shaz Wiley, thanks to him, and for months after Denny Blood was grieving over her, poor kid. Yet this man, like her mother, was shackled to an iron frame and would never again feel that true physical independence that so many people took for granted. She remembered pushing her mother about on rare days out and that confinement of spirit of both of them came back to her in a vivid memory flash. Yet, at bottom, the hardness in Di came out on top and she was no more forgiving than the rest of them as the Prison officer from Wormwood Scrubs guided Ritchie's wheelchair to the prisoner's dock.

As Karen, Yvonne, Cassie and Roisin were about to file down the staircase to the front row in the gallery. Lauren pulled Yvonne aside.

"Mum, I'm getting out of here. I've had enough. I've got business to do but I'll catch up with you later." She gave Yvonne a brief smile and was gone. Immediately, the atmosphere relaxed in the gallery as Yvonne and Karen slipped their hands into each other's. Cassie and Roisin were immediately felt to be a friendly approving presence on one side of them.

A rustling sound stole in over the lunchtime quietness of the courtroom and the key players assumed their positions. Jo Mills leafed through the thick sheaf of evidence which was placed before the court and readied herself to quietly crush the transparent tissue of lies that her quick mind had picked up on.

"Can I ask you, Mr Atkins how you supported yourself between when you arrived back in this country and when you received the £50,000 from your mother." Her chilly formal voice opened the battle.

"Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that," Ritchie smiled disarmingly at Jo Mills "Like the way I ran clubs in Spain for the tourists. I've been used to being my own boss for four years while I've been abroad."

"Can you be more precise on the matter." Jo Mills pursued, watching with growing contempt, "Exactly what was the nature of your recent enterprises."

"A bit of wheeling and dealing with some of my old man's mates. The Atkins name still carries some clout." Ritchie bragged to the court. He was going to bluff this one out just like his old man used to do.

"I refer the court to the evidence in the bundle of papers exhibit 5AX obtained from Clapham Local Authority Payroll Department confirming the identity of one Richard Atkins, date of birth corresponding to the accused before you as an assistant librarian at Clapham North library. It shows that he started his employment with them on May 3rd 2002 and that he left their employment on June 13th 2002 just two days before the explosion at Larkhall Prison. Does this assist your memory, Mr Atkins."

"I might have been, come to mention it." Ritchie said sulkily. He was beginning to resent this pushy upper class woman who didn't respond to the Atkins charm. This started to rattle him as it never had before.

"While you were employed at this library, did you at any time arrange for the loan of books to Larkhall Prison."

"I dunno. Clapham North library is a big place and some of the other lads might have sent a few books that way. I can't say I remember." Ritchie shrugged his shoulders with pretended indifference.

"I refer the court to exhibit 3LD which is a computerised record of the interlibrary loans from a Clapham North Library to Larkhall Prison which was salvaged from the fire. If you observe, there were a couple of entries in the whole six months before Mr Atkins, and, surprise surprise, a whole host of books are issued and to only one library, nowhere else in the entire county. Also I would draw the attention of the court to the fact that not one book was ever recorded as being sent back to Clapham North library from Larkhall prison despite Clapham's policy of only lending out for a month at a time before the loan is extended.

"Can I ask you again, Mr Atkins did or did you not arrange the loan of so many of your library rarest volumes, which you see listed in the evidence?"

There was a sullen pause. Cassie looked with total hatred at this guy's pathetic pretence of being the big time tycoon when she had held down a job that was the real thing.

"I take it that your lack of response is a yes." Jo Mills hard precise voice was directed equally at Ritchie and at the jury whom she turned to face with a slight flourish.

"I also refer the court to forensic evidence also retrieved by the police investigation showing traces of explosives. Can you account for this, Mr Atkins?" and Jo once again faced up to Ritchie.

"It's a lie." Shouted Ritchie." It's a set up. Nothing to do with me. How long am I going to be hassled like this? Is this British justice?"

"You will be continued to be questioned according to British justice, Mr Atkins, and I direct you to provide proper answers and stop trying to evade the questions. If you don't, I'll hold you in contempt of court." John Deed replied loudly and with a very precise intonation of a kind Ritchie had never come across before. George Channing winced visibly at both sets of painful memories.

Karen looked down at the court and the tattered remnants of an automatic sympathy natural to an ex nurse fell away leaving her feeling spiritually naked and emotionally reborn. A feeling of cold contempt for him put Ritchie and his kind forever on the opposite side of an invisible wall that made them forever unable to touch her in anything that they could do or feel or say. There was a huge feeling of release, a farewell to the past that had chained her down. She smiled sideways at Yvonne and she saw where her future lay. Yvonne's hand enfolded hers and gave her that extra tight squeeze

Jo paused for a second and glanced upwards to see how Yvonne was reacting to see her son being verbally shredded into little pieces. For her sake, the tone in her voice was comparatively muted but the interlocking irrefutable evidence and tightly reasoned logic was quite deadly enough. Surprisingly, George's bombastic and combative demeanour of the first week was fading as much as her hopes of her client's acquittal.

"I did not actually accuse you, Mr Atkins, of directly concealing the explosives in the books but your answer is answer enough."

A trace of the helpless little boy appeared from underneath the bravado.

"Can you explain to the court for what purpose you required the £50,000 that you received from your mother."

"To set myself up in business. My sister has all the fleet of cars. She's been sitting pretty on the money my old man left while I've had to make my own way in the world. It's not easy when your own father disowns you." Ritchie's reply tried the old guilt trip routine.

"That is not what I asked you, Mr Atkins. You have to explain to the court, including the jury, that the request for £50,000 was made for a specific purpose, how much of it is spent, what it has been used for and where any of the balance is held if any."

"It's been stashed away in a Swiss Bank. I ended up in a wheelchair before I could do anything with it. I'll need everything I can get the way I am right now." Ritchie's reply ended on a 'hard done by' note.

"Let us turn to the matter of the phone calls that you freely admit that Snowball Merriman made on the day before the explosion. You have admitted asking if Snowball Merriman was there. Why did you think she should be there at that moment of time? It was hardly her personal office."Jo asked with an edge of sarcasm.

"We talk on the phone. Snowball Merriman's my girlfriend. Hardly a crime is it." Ritchie snarled. Some of the Atkins spirit came back to him.

"No but the purpose for which the Reverend Mills has been used is, Mr Atkins. I ask the court to look at item 12F in the bundle of papers, which is the itemised phone calls from the prison which clearly indicates a series of phone calls made to your mobile phone over a short period of time. What were the purpose of the phone calls, Mr Atkins."

"Just usual boyfriend, girlfriend sort of thing. Nothing special."

"I will leave it for the jury to decide " Jo Mills retorted with a broad smile."And I shall pass on to the record of a phone call made to Karen Betts the night before the fire. Can you really pretend that it is a coincidence that Karen Betts came round to your flat that night presenting the perfect opportunity for you to plant the gun on Karen Betts and use her to smuggle the gun into Larkhall, the very same gun that was later stuck in her back by Snowball Merriman to enable her escape."

"You can't fit me up for this one. No way" shouted Ritchie, red in the face with anger.

"And let us turn to the direct testimony from Mrs Mills that she heard Snowball Merriman say 'Our baby's tucked up nice and safe, all ready for the weekend. Your mum thinks you've dumped me, Ritchie.' When this item of conversation which clearly indicates that 'our baby', meaning the gun 'is nicely tucked up for the weekend' meaning, is hidden for an unspecified event is placed side by side with evidence given before in court that Snowball Merriman phoned you up on Karen Bett's mobile- item 3C in the bundle of evidence- then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that not only were you available to meet Snowball Merriman with Karen Betts taken hostage but that you planned this in advance with her. Another fit up, Mr Atkins? Of course you're telling the truth and everyone else's lying."

"The kidnapping had nothing to do with me. I swear it. On my father's grave."

"As much as your word is worth." Jo Mills said dismissively and resumed her place.

"I have one question to ask the witness." George Channing quietly intervened. At a nod from John Deed she asked a very shaken Ritchie Atkins ready to sink into the ground and feeling that Wormwood Scrubs wasn't perhaps such a bad place to be.

"Can you remember the very first text message that Karen Betts ever sent to you."

A faint smile stole over his face and something of the Atkins memory bank clicked into operation.

"Yeah, not exactly easy to forget, that one. It said, 'Not much that legs can do but open or close but those things are above us whores.'"

Ritchie said faintly.

A sudden hush swept round the court and Karen had the sickening feeling that all eyes were on her for all to see. She didn't know where to put herself, even sat so close next to Yvonne. This part of the trial had appeared to go smoothly and she was calm and relaxed and ready to leave court with a nicely mellow frame of mind and this message from the past, her own, came back to haunt her.

"The Beautiful South song lyrics are too good for that nobbing …….." Cassie's loud voice broke the tension but trailed off when she saw John Deed's fixed stare directed in her direction. This was the first time in her life that a man had ever shut her up, her nobbing dad included. Jesus, she'd been let out by free pardon by pushing Grayling's body through a fiery furnace and she could hear the cell doors clang shut behind her. Unlike that posing wanker in the dock, this judge was the real thing. With a huge relief, she saw a faint smile which John Deed could not altogether suppress.

"I thank the gallery for providing the literary reference but I must strongly advise all those present not to try my patience too far as there are definite limits. There is an available cell ready for those who go too far. Court is adjourned for the day."

Ritchie was wheeled off out of the courtroom in the depths of depression as only Snowball's finest acting could save them. He had lost everything else in his life, his family, his mobility and maybe soon his liberty. The Charlie Atkins macho school of acting was a devastatingly inadequate outer protection to face the storms of life and even Ritchie knew this for the first time in his life.

Yvonne held onto a shellshocked Karen whose emotional death sentence had been reprieved at the last minute and they stumbled out of the court to let their emotions run free in the private waiting room. Was it so long ago that they were last there, both Karen and Yvonne thought at the same time? A warm rush of gratitude to Cassie swept through Karen for her intervention in the way only she could manage. Roisin clung tightly onto Cassie's arm in admiration of that boldness of spirit that had attracted her across the marriage lines.

Part Thirty Nine

After Cassie and Roisin had driven off, Yvonne asked Karen to give her a lift home, as Lauren had taken the car when she'd gone home at lunchtime. Yvonne was worried about Lauren. If it'd been anyone else on the stand, Yvonne would have gone with her to make sure she was all right, but she had to stay and watch Ritchie's cross examination.

"Do you know something?" Yvonne said in to the silence as they drove through the late afternoon traffic. "Lauren accused me yesterday of forgetting she exists."

"That sounds familiar," Said Karen, remembering her numerous arguments with Ross when he'd decided to drop out of university.

"Do you think she's right?" Asked Yvonne.

"No," Said Karen, turning in to Yvonne's road. "I think that at the moment it might feel like that, partly because you're focusing on Ritchie's trial, and partly because of what's happening with us. Lauren's only had you back since Christmas, and she probably feels that she wants to keep you all to herself."

"But that's ridiculous," Said Yvonne. "Lauren's had me all to herself since I got out."

"Not really," Replied Karen. "You've had Cassie and Roisin, and Barbara and Crystal, and me on the side so to speak, and don't forget Denny."

"Denny's been like one of mine since the old days when you first arrived," Said Yvonne quietly. "I was not about to forget about her just because I got out and she didn't."

"I know," Said Karen softly as she turned in to Yvonne's drive.

When Yvonne opened the front door and they stepped in to the house, they could hear the soft, hypnotic music of Morcheeba coming from the lounge. As Yvonne moved towards the open lounge door, she stopped and sniffed. At the same time as she saw the look of dawning recognition appear on Yvonne's face, Karen caught a waft of the sweet, fiery aroma of cannabis. Yvonne walked swiftly in to the lounge and took in the situation with a practiced glance. The curtains were closed, with a couple of lamps on here and there, and Lauren was sprawled on the sofa with a joint in one hand and an ashtray in the other. Trigger, who had been lying on the rug, got up and went wagging his tail to Karen.

"Hi mum," Said Lauren in a vaguely sleepy voice. "How did my big, smart arse of a brother get on this afternoon?" At first, Yvonne just stared at her. Then, moving forward, she plucked the joint out of Lauren's hand and stubbed it out in another ashtray that was lying on the coffee table.

"Hey," Complained Lauren making a futile grab for her treasure.

"What the hell do you think your doing?" Asked Yvonne in a surprisingly calm voice.

"I'd have thought that was obvious," #Said Lauren getting unsteadily to her feet in order to reach the ashtray where Yvonne had left the still slightly smoldering joint.

"You don't do drugs in this house, Lauren. I thought you new better than that."

"Since you've forgotten," Said Lauren icily. "This was my house, to do with pretty much as I please for a good eighteen months while you and dad were languishing behind bars."

"And the reason your father was behind bars in the first place was because of drugs."

"Oh, what," Said Lauren, facing her mother across the coffee table. "so it's all right to sell drugs but not all right to take them? Good piece of philosophy there, Mum."

"No," Said Yvonne, for the first time in her life feeling the urge to slap her daughter. "Doing anything with drugs absolutely is not all right. Dealing was your father's pastime, Lauren, not mine." Karen, stood in the lounge doorway, was heartily glad to hear this.

"Knew about it though, didn't you?" Lauren threw back at her. Karen also thought it was time they were left on their own to sort this out. Going back in to the hall, she picked up Trigger's lead from where it was hanging over the banister and waved it at him. As he scampered towards her, she scribbled a note on the pad on the hall table.

"Taken Trigger for a walk to get us both out of the crossfire." Yvonne heard the click of the front door and briefly walked in to the hall to see Karen's note and Trigger's lead gone from it's place.

Going back in to the lounge, she sat down on the sofa.

"This isn't really about your dad, is it?" She asked.

"No," Lauren conceded, also sitting down on the sofa but as far away from her mother as possible.

"so tell me," Said Yvonne lighting them both a cigarette. "Why this sudden regression in to adolescence?"

"It isn't," Said Lauren hotly.

"You could have fooled me."

"You're the one who's acting like a lovesick teenager again," Said Lauren in disgust. Yvonne grimaced.

"You really loathe anything I might have with Karen, don't you."

"You're damned right I do," Said Lauren. "Mum, this just isn't you! You don't fancy women, you're as straight as it's possible to be."

"And is it such a bad thing for me to change in that way?" Asked Yvonne quietly. "After all, I wouldn't be the first in this family to do that, now would I."

"We're not talking about me," Said Lauren hurriedly.

"No, but maybe we should," Said Yvonne. "I know you think I haven't noticed, but you've been getting closer and closer to Cassie and Roisin over the last few months. Quite what that means, I don't know, and I don't want to know." Lauren was shocked to realise just how much her mother had seen that Lauren had tried to hide.

"But why you, Mum? Why now, and why Karen Betts of all people?"

"Lauren, I'm not the person I was before Larkhall. It does something to you, being in there day in day out."

"Oh, what, so a lack of decent dick has suddenly changed you in to an instant dyke?" Yvonne winced, but tried to ignore the jibe.

"I don't know why," Said Yvonne. "I can't explain why I feel the way I do about Karen, I just know that she's one of the most special things to happen to me."

"Oh, like Denny?" Asked Lauren, and Yvonne knew they'd reached the heart of the matter.

"Lauren, I totally failed as a mother to you and to Ritchie, so maybe a part of me is trying to put that right with Denny. I love you more than I will ever love anybody, but that doesn't mean I can't care about anyone else. I'm usually more proud of you than anyone I've ever known. In spite of how me and Charlie brought you up, you've stayed pretty much on the straight and narrow. Quite how, I'm not sure, but you have. Ritchie's managed to make a complete mess of his life, and I know I had a certain amount to do with that. But you've done so much to make me proud of you. Keeping the business going when me and your dad were in prison, about to start your final year at college, trying to set up this financial consultancy thing with Cassie. You've done more than I ever could have dreamed of, coming from the background you did. I'd like to be able to think of you as the one success of my life, but everything you've done isn't because of anything me and your dad did for you. I know that Ritchie being on trial is getting to you, it is to all of us, and I know that having Karen in my life and maybe eventually Denny is going to take some getting used to. but I'm not about to change any of that. You are still my daughter, and what I have with Karen and trying to be there for Denny isn't going to make me love you any less, but you have got to try to accept that this is what my life consists of these days."

"How can you be, like that, with Karen after she slept with Ritchie? That's what I don't understand."

"There's a lot you don't know about all that," Said Yvonne quietly.

"So, tell me," Persisted Lauren.

"No," Said Yvonne firmly. "There are things about Karen's life that she might not want you to know."

"How do you know that once she's had whatever she wants from you, she won't move on to someone else. You heard Ritchie in court, doesn't that tell you what she's like."

"I don't," Said Yvonne. "Karen might get cold feet in a couple of weeks for all I know. But that's a risk I'm prepared to take. As for what Ritchie said, don't even go there. Maybe you don't realise it, but that wasn't Ritchie sitting in that court room, that was an incarnation of your father. All that shit he was spouting was said for pure, malicious enjoyment, nothing else."

"I can't convince you, can I," Said Lauren defeatedly. "I can't make you see that Karen Betts means trouble."

"No," Said Yvonne sadly. "You can't. If she is, I'll find that out in my own way."

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you," Said Lauren.

"I think you'd better go and sleep off that dope," Said Yvonne, pure ice in her tone.

"Is that the adult way of sending me to my room?" Asked Lauren with no hint of a smile.

"Yes," Said Yvonne without a stir. "I don't want to argue with you about this, but keep talking like that about Karen and I will." Lauren stood up and moved towards the stairs, involuntarily obeying her mother's command to go and figuratively sover up. As Yvonne flushed away the remains of Lauren's joint and what was left of her stash, she prayed Lauren wasn't about to go through the same personality flaw as Roisin had.

A while later when she observed Lauren was sound asleep, sprawled across her bed in as adolescent a fashion as possible, Yvonne thought that a little chat from Cassie, on the truly horrific points of drug addiction might not go amiss. Picking up the phone, she dialed their number. When Cassie answered, Yvonne was slightly relieved it hadn't been Roisin.

"Cass, I need you to do me a favour."

"Sounds serious," Replied Cassie.

"Yeah," Said Yvonne contemplatively, "It is. When I got home today, I found Lauren smoking dope."

"Oh, no," Cassie groaned.

"Unfortunately so. I've tried talking to her, and I might have got somewhere, but would you try something for me. Would you tell her about what happened to Roisin?" Cassie went quiet for a minute. Roisin's addiction to heroin had almost killed both of them, and they weren't memories she wanted to revisit in a hurry.

"Fine," She said, thanking god that Roisin was in the shower. "But Roisin doesn't know about this. She doesn't need to drag all that up again."

"You're a star," Said Yvonne fondly.

"Yeah, well, you owe me one for this," Said Cassie.

"She's sleeping it off at the moment, so there's no rush."

"I'll be over some time later," Said Cassie, hoping she was doing the right thing.

As Yvonne put the phone down, she saw Karen walking back up the drive with Trigger. When she went to let them in, Trigger looked like Karen would be his favourite person for ever more.

"You okay?" Asked Karen, unclipping the lead.

"I'm sorry about that," Said Yvonne. Karen returned the lead to its place on the banister and turned to face her.

"Where's Lauren?" She asked.

"Sleeping it off, under protest."

"I caught Ross smoking dope once," Said Karen, "When he was seventeen. I bawled him out good and proper, and then felt incredibly guilty."

"Jesus," Said Yvonne, "It doesn't get any easier, does it."

"I don't think it's supposed to," Said Karen, putting her arms round Yvonne. "The trick is, or so I'm told, is to let them make their own mistakes. But then, once they've got passed a certain age, you don't really have a choice about that. They'll make their own mistakes whether we like it or not."

"I've asked Cassie to tell her about everything Roisin went through in prison."

"Actually," Said Karen, "That's not a bad idea. The quicker Lauren can kick the habit, the better." When their lips met, it felt for both of them like a much needed comfort. Yvonne desperately needed to feel that someone appreciated her and thought she was doing the right thing, and Karen found herself still needing the reassurance that Ritchie's testimony hadn't caused Yvonne to want out.

"Jesus," Said Yvonne after a while. "I can't get enough of this."

"I noticed," Said Karen with a smirk. She knew it wouldn't be long now till Yvonne wanted the sexual ecstasy Karen could and would give her. When they heard Cassie's car pull in to the drive, they broke apart.

"I've got to check up on what Sylvia's been up to in my absence," Said Karen.

"Oh, do give her my love," Said Yvonne grinning. Karen laughed.

"I think she'd die of shock." Karen waved to Cassie as she got in to her car, and blew a last kiss to Yvonne as she stood by the front door. Cassie watched the interchange between Yvonne and Karen, and knew that this slowly but surely growing relationship was about to provide more ructions on the horizon than had been felt in the Atkins household for a very long time.

Part Forty

Cassie lay back in her car seat watching Karen's familiar green sports car disappear down the road thinking how times had changed in her life. She was being called upon by the one time 'top dog' of Larkhall to talk to Lauren as the adult parent substitute to her and with her reputation and past life. For a moment, she doubted her own ability to have that combination of strength and reason. When she first started living with Roisin, she had felt that it came more natural to Roisin to play that role till one day Roisin told her different.

"Cassie, love," Roisin had said,"You are brilliant in the way you can tell the children straight and they'll believe you. Sometimes I feel that I can give them all the love that I feel for them but I'm forever the nagging anxious mother and I can see that in their eyes. You are great at tough love. Never forget that." And Roisin looked into her eyes in total love and admiration and not just as her girlfriend. The light touch of Roisin's fingers as she stroked the lock of hair that curled down from Cassie's side parting also helped her to believe in this little suspected side of Cassie's personality.

Oh well, if Roisin has always somehow had faith in me for what she must have seen as the fickle, devil may care, love them and leave them woman, when they first met, I must have something going for me. At the same time, memories came into her mind of looking back at the total ignorance she had of Roisin's drug addiction as it was taking hold of the very way she was so thankful of the way Roisin was getting some sleep at last even if she was a bit groggy in the morning and the reality of the first barbiturate tablets she was taking. It wasn't just the drugs that was the danger.

In a moment of decision, the strength in Cassie shut her car door firmly behind her and walked purposefully across the front drive to where Yvonne was waiting.

"Admiring your reflection in the car mirror, were you Cassie. I'm bloody glad you could make it over here. I need help really bad on this." It was not lost on Cassie that hardness of Yvonne's wisecrack softened up into the vulnerability of a woman who was out of her depth and feeling afraid. This tough / tender side of Yvonne's personality was a large reason why Cassie had grown so fond of her.

"Yeah well, it isn't going to be easy, Yvonne, it's like getting Fenner to tell the truth." Cassie's own version of Yvonne's quality was reflected back. Then her own warm smile softened this."Oh well, show me up to your juvenile delinquent daughter." Cassie added in a voice of parental firmness. Yvonne could not believe her ears in hearing a side of Cassie that she had never seen before.

"Cassie, this is a surprise," smiled Lauren as her eyes blinked open when Cassie clicked on the bright bedroom light."Didn't know you fancied me that much."

"Lauren, I've come over to have a straight talk with you. Seems like you've been recently seeing the wrong company and been smoking the wrong sort of tobacco." Cassie said firmly.

"So what's wrong with a bit of dope, Cassie? And you of all people who turned Roisin on to her first coke. Brazilian marching powder is much more dangerous than something that everyone says is safe. Dope cools you out. Did you know how many people get killed drunk driving? And how many bastard husbands knock their wives about when they come home from the pub after they've got blind drunk? You're turning very moral all of a sudden. Not like you, Cassie."

"You're going to have to learn a few things about me, Lauren." Cassie said firmly."I am not going to be the prisoner of whatever stupid things I've done in the past. I don't deny in the least what you've said about coke. But that was before I spent time in Larkhall. I've done a lot of growing up and I've changed."

"So the Cassie Tyler party girl who plays spin the bottle………"

"You weren't complaining, Lauren. Not like you were fighting me off, were you." Cassie cut in, her blue eyes stared down Lauren unflinchingly.

"That doesn't matter. Just a bit of fun, Cassie. You don't mind a bit of fun. And your Salvation Army routine does not convince me one bit. Or yourself if you are honest." Lauren looked back in mingled incredulity and brash hostility after brushing aside Cassie's sharp retort.

Oh Jesus, she's looking just like me when I gave my parents a hard time. Stick to your guns, Cassie Tyler, she said to herself, her parent and adult in full control of herself.

"You'd better learn a few things about me, Lauren Atkins." Cassie said coolly with absolute conviction. "You only see one side of me when I'm out on the town with you or over here. You don't get to see the domesticated Cassie Tyler going with Roisin taking the kids out to the pictures. Or at parent's evening looking at Niamh's stories. Or talking to Michael to get him to stand up to the school bullies. Or on Sunday dinner, family meal at the table. You come over and see me anytime, I dare you. Whatever you see when I've here is one side of me……..But we're going to talk about you, Lauren, not me. And we're going to talk about drugs." Cassie finished, tossing into the verbal wastebin any more talk of who Cassie Tyler should or shouldn't be.

"The thing about drugs, Lauren." Cassie said casually, lighting up a cigarette and offering one to Lauren who responded to Cassie's friendly gesture. "Is that it brings you into contact with lowlife slimebags who have the power over you, that you mix with not because you like them but you know that they have the substance on them that you crave. And you start to lie to yourself that they are your friends. And that is one big lie. So what sort of guy is it that you went off and bought your dope off, Lauren?"

Cassie's words were a slap in the face to Lauren. She had shot off in her car to the rougher part of Larkhall, to some seedy looking council flat. She remembered walking through the space where the wooden front gate had been but hung uselessly on its hinges, past the overgrown front garden, a knock on the front door, minus knocker and up the uncarpeted staircase and into the bedroom. There were assorted bodies sprawled out over the double bed but the man dressed in scruffy denims had smiled at her and waved her to a corner of the dimly lit room and told her that a friend was going out to score for her.

"Why don't you stay round here and have a smoke with us. We're all friends round here and it's cool."

Lauren could swear that none of them had changed their positions since she'd been round the time before. She'd made stilted polite conversation to begin with but had recently found it more and more attractive as a contrast to the manic fast paced life she led in her financial consultancy with Cassie. She wished she'd have more time to just let things flow like these others but she hadn't got the time. So she had made her excuses and shot off in her car back home but each time she left, it had become much harder to make that effort. There was some mysterious quality here that she wanted to become part of and she felt that she was the wrong side of the goldfish bowl. The fact that it was a world removed from her comfortable luxurious life didn't repulse her, in fact she held a perverse fascination for her.

Cassie immediately pegged the sort of scene that Lauren was romancing about in her description of and could see the big, fatal gaps in her description.

"I used to go round to that sort of scene, Lauren to score my coke only a lot flashier, classier and I bought the myth that coke was for smart businesswomen and was somehow cleaner. Only I got to hear of some of my friends from the club, you know the one that I took you to and I got pissed, remember," and Lauren grinned at that memory," only I'd heard what had happened to Jane." And here. Cassie's voice assumed an brittle edge."Jane thought, hey, smoking crack cocaine gave her the ultimate buzz, thirty pounds it cost her, peanuts to someone on what she was earning….till the buzz went off a half an hour later she wanted more and more of the stuff. I gave her a lift once and she was babbling away to me like she could fix me up with some nice stuff, you won't regret it, and only when she mentioned the word 'rock' did I understand what the stupid bitch was on about, God help me for saying that about her. I told her that I'm dropping her off back at her place or she gets out of my car in the middle of nowhere. I know I did the best thing I could for her, heartless cow though I appeared to her. Going soft and dropping her off at her dealers because she asked me to was being no friend to her……..the next thing I knew, she'd lost her job, her friends, her self respect, her lover, her possessions….all went up in smoke, Lauren. Jane used to go to that club we were at and would have been that night if she hadn't ever got onto that stuff."

Lauren sat wide eyes, seeing an intensity, grief and anger intermingled in Cassie that she had never known before. But Cassie wasn't through with her just yet.

"And this crowd of 'friends' that you buy your dope off, Lauren." Cassie's voice searched into Lauren's eyes."Are you sure that they only do dope? I don't believe that one. But you haven't heard what happened to Roisin in Larkhall, not properly."

And Lauren knew for certain that there was a more dangerous layer of existence in that flat which she was on the point of being seduced into

"I've told you what happened to Roisin in Larkhall, Lauren." What you hear from me is from what Roisin and I have talked over. Roisin was hurting inside, away from our kids who were kept away from being a part of and she was desperately afraid that they were being turned away from her, by Aiden and by being in prison and being a bad mother, who blamed me and herself for being there so she turned to something that would numb the pain, first sleeping tablets, that sounded respectable, then something to 'put a smile on her face' typical dealers talk for speed. Only she swore to have nothing to do with needles till she turned to the biggest nobbing painkiller of all, heroin. And she was mainlining. She never intended to get onto the stuff. Only no addict ever intends to be an addict. They are just at some shit point in their lives and the stuff is available."

"All right, Cassie. There are some people who get hooked on drugs and end up in a mess. But you're saying that their lives are in a mess to begin with. I'm strong enough, got to be to look after the business while Mum was inside."

"So what's really bugging you, Lauren? What about Denny? Yvonne was telling me how it was when Denny came over for the day." Cassie deliberately shot a little wide of the mark but that was to tackle the easier problem first.

" I couldn't stand it when Denny was acting as if she is part of the family. I couldn't say it to her face. She isn't an Atkins…."

"Neither is your mother, that's the problem," Cassie jumped in smartly.

"What." Lauren shot back, her voice full of derision and incredulity."Jealous of Denny? I mean, she's nice enough and friendly but she's no competition…."

"Except that Yvonne loves her in an uncomplicated way."

"You mean mum loves her better than me……."

Cassie said nothing for a few minutes to let Lauren's question hang in the air and become a confession.

"You forget Yvonne Denny and I were all prisoners in Larkhall together when we all had nothing apart from what illicit stuff could be smuggled in." Cassie explained thoughtfully."You're on top of each other, day in day out…….not in that way," Cassie added hastily, seeing Lauren start to leap to conclusions,"But you get to know things about each other that you wouldn't get the time for on the outside. And I know that there is a real bond between Denny and Yvonne that will never die. Something about Denny getting the mother love from Yvonne that she never had from her own. And the Atkins values that you got from your mother that messes with your head. Yvonne is one step ahead of you in moving away from that. I know about jealousy between sisters. My sister Gail was the goody goody sister who I was dead jealous of even I've grown up drop dead gorgeous to women,"and here the Cassie familiar to Lauren humourously peeked out,"and Gail was plain. My parents treated her as the favourite and I treated her like shit. I was jealous of her and, only on the outside, could I go over and talk to her and become friends. The thing is, I could have done it years ago. So, kid." And Cassie's familiar bantering style overtook her very serious, adult, reasoning style."You'd better get used to it. Don't fight it and build a wall between you and your mum. Denny won't want to come between you and Yvonne. She's no threat and she's a good kid…….even though I could never see what she saw in Shaz. Not my type at all." Cassie finished with a smile.

Lauren was transfixed by Cassie's words which were pitched perfectly as adult talk softened by the suggestion of the verbally outrageous Cassie she had known. She swallowed hard and promised to listen. She couldn't properly deal with it then and she desperately wanted time to mull it all over. She could grasp onto a few threads that Cassie was right about drugs and there was something in what she was saying about Denny. But her mind blanked off and shut down after that. There was so much that Cassie was hitting her with that her mind was buzzing with it all.

"Which brings me on to Karen. You have got to give her a chance……."

"No, Cassie, shut the fuck up." Lauren flared."I won't talk about that woman………."

Shit, thought Cassie. I've messed up. I was just that bit too overeager. What do I say now? What do I do? Lauren had turned her head down and wouldn't look at Cassie. That precious eye contact and thin thread of communications was lost.

"Shit, I'm sorry for pushing you too hard."

"You ought to be, Cassie."

Lauren was trembling and there were tears in her eyes, something no one had seen. Atkins don't do tears so she covered her face with her hands and wiped the tears away. This didn't fool Cassie as she had seen Michael's exactly similar gesture to show to himself and the world around him that boys don't cry. Cassie calmed down and realised that the clock on the bomb wasn't ticking if she didn't speak. Just allow Lauren so much time before speaking, Cassie thought to herself.

"I know it will take you some time to get used to your mother being in love with another woman. I guess I'm likely to forget that one being out since I've been twelve. Pretty young to start, hey." Cassie smiled and a faint ghost of a smile played on Lauren's lips. She couldn't be angry with Cassie for long.

"I remember you saying that time we were out on the piss 'It's all right. Mum is over sixteen. She can do what she likes as long as she doesn't get hooked on some bastard.

One is enough.'Just think of that."

Lauren made no answer, being too choked inside to talk.

"Do you want me to go soon, Lauren? But not as enemies, hey."

Lauren made no answer but to slip her arms round Cassie's shoulders and kiss her very lightly on her cheek.

"You'd better go home, Cassie, back to Roisin," Lauren replied.

Cassie smiled and went out through the door.

"How did you get on, Cassie." Yvonne asked. She'd been nervously pacing the hallway, ears strained for the sounds of any objects thrown or shouting and, miraculously, there was relative quiet. The strained smile on Cassie as she tottered downstairs was halfway good news.

"Two out of three if I'm lucky, Yvonne. I need a drink even if I am driving."

"You could stay the night if you want to make it more than one, Cassie" Yvonne offered generously. The large drinks cabinet was Cassie's for the choosing if she'd achieved anything like she hinted. She was going into a major panic zone about Lauren, all the horrifying for it being unprecedented and also that, for once, her very resourceful personality faced a situation beyond her control.

"Thanks but no."Cassie declined gracefully. "I promised Roisin I'd be back."

"Anyway, briefly, Lauren will probably knock drugs on the head and the bad company she's been keeping, she'll think twice about Denny but I blew it in being too pushy about Karen. We are on talking terms still."

Just then, the phone rang. It was Roisin for her.

"Hey, babe, yeah. I got somewhere with Lauren. Not everything but it wasn't wasted. I'm going to have a quick drink and I'll be off home."

The expression on Cassie's face was surprisingly shy and bashful as Roisin poured out all her praises of Cassie who had pulled out of nowhere qualities she never knew she had. To Roisin's practiced ear, Cassie's version was no exaggeration.

"And Michael and Niamh phoned up from Aiden's and said how much they missed us. They were disappointed they couldn't speak to you but I explained what had happened and they insisted I phone up right now to pass on their love."

"See you in a bit, babe." Cassie replied. And then to Yvonne she turned to speak.

"That woman spoils me rotten, Yvonne, more than I have been already."

Yvonne smiled wistfully, thinking of Karen, as she saw love's dream written all over Cassie's face and sensed that this could be her own future, if only Lauren would let her. Jesus, it was hard sometimes having so many people to please all the time. The story of her life however much her tough bitch exterior appeared to say the opposite.

"Snowball's on tomorrow," Cassie said casually.

Yvonne had forgotten that with all the drama of events at home.

"We'd best be on our best behaviour, Cassie, as I want to see that smug bitch banged up for what she's done and not us for bleeding contempt of court for throwing something hard at her. We've both pushed our luck. Don't want to end up as badgirls sharing a cell together."

Cassie grinned and stepped out into the darkness.

Part 41

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